THE BLOG

Politics Trumps Decency

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

“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.”