Facebook Twitter

Voices: A DPS school board parable

Alexander Ooms applies a well-known parable about the stinging scorpion and the helpful frog to the current political scene on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.

You know the story. It goes like this:

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a wide river, and the scorpion asked the frog to carry him across on his back. “How do I know you won’t sting me?” the frog asks. The scorpion says “because if I do, then I will die too.”


Satisfied, the frog puts the scorpion on his back and starts the journey across the river. When they are halfway across, the scorpion sinks his stinger into the frog. As paralysis sets in and the frog begins to sink, knowing both will now drown, the frog asks, “Why?”

“Because” says the scorpion, “it is my nature.”

Since the elections in November of 2011, the parable has played out. The board majority are frogs; the minority are scorpions. The board frogs keep agreeing to carry the scorpions across the river. The board scorpions keep accepting the ride, only to eventually produce their sting.

The most recent example of this living parable the replacement of majority member Nate Easley, who is leaving the board before his term is up. The board president has the legal right to essentially appoint a replacement, but instead the majority hastily developed a transparent system with an open application process and public interviews, after which the entire board votes for their preferred choices and the leading candidates were placed on a short list for further discussion with the hope of a unanimous agreement. Sounds reasonable enough. “Climb onto our backs and we’ll work together on this,” say the frogs. “OK, we will,” say the participating scorpions.

And then? After the board votes on applicants, the resulting short list has no Latinos. An advocacy group complains. And thus part way through this process, scorpions Jeannie Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez sting. They join the campaign against the lack of Latino candidates, despite their direct and willing participation in the process that resulted in no Latino candidates. You read that correctly: neither Kaplan nor Jimenez voted for a single Latino candidate to advance to the short list, and then both signed a letter to protest the lack of Latino candidates on the short list. Halfway across the river. Sting.

This is the pattern. Facing a DPS bond with a divided electorate, the board frogs publicly advocate for the measure and ask their colleagues to join them; a board scorpion then leads an effort to block the bond. Sting. The board frogs labor to finalize a consent decree for ELL students; three scorpions derail the process with a last minute letter to the judge. Sting. The board frogs try to develop a community process for the inclusion of a charter school into a northwest neighborhood. After first praising the plan a board scorpion eventually pens an op-ed in which she argues that policy, citizen recommendations, equity, collaboration and compromise “do not matter to the majority.” Sting.

Will anyone make it across the river?

In truth, the scorpion behavior here is not new. The most public of previous incidents was probably board scorpions Jimenez and Kaplan voting in favor of pension refinancing, then shortly thereafter coming out in venomous opposition to it. Sting. Perhaps the most obvious board scorpion is representative Andrea Merida, whose initial act as a publicly elected official was to plunge her stinger deep into her friend and supporter. Sting.

But what is new about this board since the election in the fall or 2011 is the frogs. The ascendancy of Seawell to the presidency, as well as the election of new members Rowe and Haynes, was generally seen as a shift towards consensus and camaraderie after the prior board’s predictable series of acrimonious 4-3 votes. This new board bloc prefers advocating for policies that attract as wide a base of support (and as few direct enemies) as possible, even if this entails watering those policies down to make them more palatable.

My point here is not to say that the behavior of the scorpion is more or less correct than that of the frog. And frogs are not morally superior to scorpions (or vice versa). In the partisan political realm, both behaviors are perfectly viable strategies: vicious dissent is often part of the process, as is elevating broad consensus over impact.

But in politics, these strategies are deployed in service to some greater political end. And that greater end is what is entirely absent here. It’s pretty hard to argue that the scorpions have had any success by subverting the board majority, but at the same time the frog’s attempts at collaboration have resulted in even more acrimony and less effective policy. The few shabby accomplishments of the DPS board over the last 15 months have been drowned out by the drama.

And in truth, these respective strategies of offer and sting seem less and less about any board members trying to accomplish a specific policy agenda or adhere to a set of firmly held core beliefs. More and more, it seems that the acts are simply an inherited habit and pattern. Frog must offer ride. Scorpion must sting frog.

So how many more times before the board composition changes again will the frogs offer their undefended flesh while trying to advance a program, and the scorpions embrace the offer with a sting? I would bet a whole lot more. Denver has gone full circle, from a board praised as one of the nation’s best to one paralyzed by a repeated ritual experience which neither group seems to have the ability or inclination to break.

And honestly, after watching the pattern play over and over again, there is not much point to blaming either side for their behavior. Why is this DPS board as dysfunctional as it is? Why indeed. It is their nature.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.