DPS board approves new spending policy

Denver school board members unanimously approved a new policy Thursday night guiding the spending of the $5,000 annual allotment in tax dollars each receives to assist with their board work.

Meanwhile, new records obtained under the state’s open-records law show some members dramatically slowed their spending after Education News Colorado first reported two of the seven board members had exceeded their limits.

“This is something we really needed to address as a board, and we needed the board to have the public’s trust, and this will help instill confidence in the board,” said Mary Seawell, the board treasurer.

Most board members’ spending tapered to a trickle in September after EdNews reported Aug. 31 that board member Andrea Merida had gone over her $5,000 limit by $7,427 in fiscal year 2010-11 while board member Arturo Jimenez exceeded the cap by $1,153.

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Merida went from spending $1,643 in August to about $35 in September.

Only two board members’ monthly spending totals went up from August to September. Jimenez, who’d spent nothing in August, charged $47 to the district in September. Board president Nate Easley went from $716 in August to almost $1,500 in September, largely due his attendance at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Board members, who receive no salary, are permitted to use up to $5,000 in district money each fiscal year for expenses incurred in carrying out their work for DPS.

After Easley announced at an Aug. 18 board meeting that he had exceeded his limit, EdNews filed an open-records request on all board members’ accounts. Records revealed Easley actually hadn’t gone over his total but that Merida and Jimenez had. No other board member had used up their full $5,000.

More than $4,000 of the $12,427 in charges racked up Merida in 2010-11 was spent at restaurants and coffee shops. She said such charges were incurred through “community engagement.” Merida is midway through her first term representing southwest Denver.

Jimenez and Merida both said in September they would repay the district for their overages. Merida initially said she would not, then agreed to do so a couple days later.

Board members encouraged to repay “as promised”

Some question remained after Thursday night’s vote as to when Merida and Jimenez will pay back the previous year’s overages.

“Now that we have a policy that’s not retroactive, I plan to look at last year’s expenses in light of this one and determine if there’s anything I should pay back, and if there is, I will,” said Jimenez, who is campaigning for a second term representing northwest Denver.

Asked if he is challenging the district’s figure of $1,153 in overspending from 2010-11, he said, “I’m not sure what the figure would be, or what would be appropriate, so I think that now passing this policy now gives us a better guide – but no clear sense of what that amount is. And that amount kept changing. But I promise to look at it and work on it.”

Jimenez said he has pledged not to use his district credit card until last year’s account is resolved. He also called attention to his role in proposing an addition to the new policy, calling for members’ credit-card statements to be posted on the district website. That element was incorporated into the new policy.

Merida, moments after the vote was passed, issued a statement which read, in part, “I am glad that the confusion caused by the absence of a spending policy is now rectified…

“To further demonstrate my commitment to transparency to my community, I will be posting my expenses on my website so they can see for themselves how I support them with the resources their tax dollars have provided.”

Asked if she would be paying back any of her previous year’s overage, Merida, who is a free-lance web designer, followed with an email which stated, “I offered to, in the way I am able, and it was not accepted.”

Merida said she made the offer to Easley, who shortly before the meeting’s conclusion called for board members with overages to repay them “as they’ve promised to do.”

In an interview afterward, Easley said he had “no recollection” of Merida offering to repay the money.

“And let’s just say she did,” Easley said. “I’m not her boss. The people are her boss. She works for the people, she doesn’t work for me. So she should ask the people if she should pay it back.”

Noting that “$7,000 is a lot of money” to repay, Easley added, “I’m willing to work with her, and my colleagues on the board, to find out something that works.”

A+ Denver to board: “What you do sends a message to all of us”

Media attention on the board members’ spending sparked a review of the policy guiding their personal use of district money.

Many members – including board president Easley, whose responsibility it had been to sign off on his colleagues’ monthly credit card statements – confessed confusion about what was and was not permitted, and how they were even to know whether they were close to their limits.

Highlights of the new spending policy passed Thursday night include:

  • If an expense is considered allowable but it would put a board member over the annual allotment, permission for that expenditure must be sought from the board president and treasurer.
  • If an overage is discovered only after-the-fact, the board member must reimburse the district within 90 days of receiving notice of the overage.
  • The board treasurer will sign each member’s monthly statement and verify that supporting documentation is included; if the treasurer is not available, the board president will do so. Failure to produce receipts may result in a board member’s card being canceled.
  • Board members will receive notice of their cumulative spending total, showing their balance against the annual amount they’re allotted no less frequently than on a quarterly basis.

Merida’s spending has dropped off dramatically since she and her colleagues’ use of their district allocation came under scrutiny.

She spent $1,528 in July and $1,643 in August, a pace which if sustained would have put her at over $18,000 for 2011-12.

EdNews filed its first open-records request on board member spending Aug. 19 and published its findings Aug. 31. A second records request was submitted Sept. 15, seeking spending records for July and August, and a third request was filed Oct. 10 for spending in the month of September.

Merida incurred just $34.89 in new charges for the month of September. None of her money was spent on food or beverages.

Well after the vote was taken at Thursday’s meeting, A+ Denver executive director Van Schoales addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. He called on board members, without naming names, to pay back not only their overages but “anything that wasn’t, for whatever reason, used to further district business.

“We know that we’re in tough times, we know the district is in tough times, and we need to save every penny,” Schoales added. “What you do sends a message to all of us.”

When Schoales concluded his remarks and left the speakers’ podium, board member Jeannie Kaplan said, “We voted on this already and we passed it … I’m highly offended.”

Recent spending by Denver school board members

EdNews Colorado obtained recent expense statements for Denver school board members after finding two board members exceeded their $5,000 annual limits in fiscal year 2010-11. The key finding: Spending dramatically slowed for most after an Aug. 31 story about overspending.

Nate Easley – northeast Denver

  • Easley did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $159.50, August – $716.43, September – $1,461.41
  • Three-month total – $2,337.34
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – Easley, who brought the spending issue to light initially, easily led all board members in September spending, largely due to his travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a Council for Opportunity in Education conference.

Bruce Hoyt – southeast Denver

  • Hoyt did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $112.98, August – $500, September – 0
  • Three-month total – $612.98
  • Credit-card statement for July/August; Hoyt had no spending in September
  • Notable – After spending just $777 in all of 2010-11, the term-limited board member spent $500 in August, donating it to a DPS coaches’ association for prizes and awards.

Arturo Jimenez – northwest Denver

  • Jimenez exceeded the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11 by $1,153.29
  • July spending – $272.41, August – 0, September – $47.15
  • Three-month total – $319.56
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – Jimenez, who is campaigning for a second term, has not yet paid his overage from 2010-11 but spent only $47 in the past two months – a single visit to the Tamale Kitchen.

Jeannie Kaplan – central Denver

  • Kaplan did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $167.61, August – $131, September – $104.66
  • Three-month total – $403.27
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – Most of Kaplan’s few expenditures in the current fiscal year have been at restaurants, topped by one $111.99 charge at the Pearl Street Grill in July.

Andrea Merida – southwest Denver

  • Merida exceeded the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11 by $7,427.87
  • July spending – $1,528.36, August – $1,643.47, September – $34.89
  • Three-month total – $3,206.72
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – After spending more than $480 on restaurants and coffee shops in August, expenditures she has classified as community outreach, Merida spent no money that way in September.

Theresa Peña – at-large

  • Peña did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $4.75, August – $1,002.75, September – $44.24
  • Three-month total – $1,051.74
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – The term-limited board member spent $500 in August on a donation to the 2011 boys2MEN Life Skills workshop and another $500 as a donation for uniforms and to support school culture at P.R.E.P. Academy, an intensive pathways school for students struggling in traditional settings.

Mary Seawell – at-large

  • Seawell did not exceed the $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11
  • July spending – $722.14, August – $168.96, September – $69.47
  • Three-month total – $960.57
  • Credit-card statements for July/August and September
  • Notable – The board treasurer, who has taken the lead in crafting a new spending policy, spent $63 on food and coffee in September.

*Recent spending for board members includes credit-card purchases as well as reimbursed purchases and donations and does not include interest or late fees.

Board member who overspent issues statement on new policy

Andrea Merida, who overspent her $5,000 limit in fiscal year 2010-11 by more than $7,000, sent this statement to the media after a new board spending policy was approved:

  • “I am glad that the confusion caused by the absence of a spending policy is now rectified. Although my offer to pay for some of my expenses was not authorized, I am glad we’ve passed this policy by a unanimous vote. To further demonstrate my commitment to transparency to my community, I will be posting my expenses on my website so they can see for themselves how I support them with the resources their tax dollars have provided.”
  • She added, “I am disappointed that the lack of clarity we inherited from previous boards has been turned into a campaign issue, and I am hopeful that this type of politically-motivated, manufactured discord will now be put to rest so we can focus on real issues like the burdensome debt our district is saddled with due to financial mismanagement, as well as on student achievement.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede