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Alan Gottlieb

Alan Gottlieb

Posted: December 1, 2009 05:04 PM

Politics Trumps Decency

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“You are the only large urban district that I know of in this country that has a functioning school board. But you should not assume that the electoral system that has turned school boards in every other large urban system in the United States will continue to produce acceptable results from the standpoint of positive change in the schools.”

Former San Diego Supt. Alan Bersin, speaking in Denver April 1, 2009

Today, Alan Bersin sounds like a prophet. Denver’s school board is in trouble, its members riven by personal and political animosities so deep and tangled that it would have the makings of a farce, if it had any humor in it.

Listen: I grew up in Chicago during the era of  Mayor Richard J. Daley. I understand that politics ain’t beanbag. There’s endless jockeying for position and advantage. Elbows get thrown about with abandon.

Still, what happened at Monday night’s school board meeting goes beyond the pale. If this isn’t a rule of politics, it should be: Before you pull a nasty, mean-spirited, back-stabbing stunt, make sure something substantially beneficial will result, at least from your perspective.

What new school board member Andrea Merida did yesterday failed that test in spectacular fashion. And let’s name some more names. Political pros like consultant Steve Welchert and lawyer Mark Grueskin, along with incumbent board member Jeanne Kaplan were partners in Merida’s act of betrayal.

Apparently, they still think they may have the upper hand in judicial review. That remains to be seen.

You can read all the gory details in Nancy Mitchell’s story. You can watch a video of some of the lowlights on the EdNews blog. But here’s the bottom line. Acting on counsel from Grueskin and Welchert, Merida had herself sworn in to her new school board seat Monday morning, several hours before the official 7 p.m. swearing-in ceremony. Without question, the move was entirely legal.

The immediate effect was to bounce eight-year veteran Michelle Moss off the board before Monday’s meeting, when some big votes were scheduled. Neither Merida nor Kaplan – long Moss’s closest ally on the board – had the decency or courage to warn Moss in advance of what had transpired. So Moss, her hair still growing in after chemotherapy, was a picture of righteous indignation and fury when she was told the news as she walked onto the board dais.

Moss endorsed Merida to be her successor. She made calls on her behalf. She helped her get elected by the slimmest of margins – 116 votes.

So here’s where politics and competence enter the picture. If Merida and her henchpeople had reason to believe that her action would result in a changed outcome on key votes – most notably the Lake Middle School controversy – then they could make a plausible argument that politics is a rough business and sometimes collateral damage occurs.

Instead, Welchert told EdNews,  they acted on the belief that DPS attorney John Kechriotis would determine that all three new board members would have to be sworn in before the meeting. That might have altered the outcome of key votes.

Kechriotis disagreed. The other new board members were not sworn in before the votes. Now, Welchert told EdNews, they’re betting that a judicial review will find that if one board member was sworn in early, all three should have been. Kechriotis’ failure to do so may invalidate all votes taken Monday. Or so goes their reasoning. This may now be fought out in court, at taxpayer expense.

Merida and Co. didn’t bother to inform the two new board members of their scheme. Those new members, Nate Easley and Mary Seawell, told EdNews’ Mitchell that they knew nothing of Merida’s move until she entered the board room at 4 p.m. Monday.

If Merida had wanted a real shot at changing the outcome of any votes, she would have needed to persuade one of the other new board members to follow her lead, get sworn in early, and then vote her way. Or practice politics, and try some old-fashioned persuasion.

Apparently she did no such thing. And so her move looks like nothing more than a selfishly motivated act; a four-year-old ripping open her Christmas presents on December 23.

So, what we’re left with is anger and animosity that has transcended policy disagreements and gotten personal. The new board’s first order of business has to be an effort to mend fences, using an outside mediator – perhaps a mental health professional.

It saddens me that people on the other side of this issue will downplay what happened Monday night as just part of the political game. They will point to the fact that Easley’s ascendancy to the presidency was a similarly slick move rife with betrayal of erstwhile ally Kaplan, who coveted the presidency.

Fair enough. But Easley manned up and told Kaplan and others of his intentions well ahead of time. And Kaplan is still on the board, and so lives to fight another day.

A longtime observer of Denver schools told me last night that “the last eight years have been a policy story. DPS has now turned into a political story. And moms, dads and kids will suffer as a result.” He’s right.

I’ll leave the last word to Michelle Moss. Speaking of Kaplan and Merida, she said: “These guys make cancer look easy.”


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