By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Andrea Merida blows through the back door of the sunny conference room at Denver Public Schools' Balarat Outdoor Education Center. She's in a huff. She's spent the past few hours in the car, hunting for the place, which is an hour and a half northwest of Denver and is perched atop a steep, winding dirt road marked only with a tiny sign.
"No directions!" she says, tossing her oversized white handbag on the U-shaped conference table and heading toward the bathroom marked "Girls."
While it's true that Merida and fellow boardmember Jeannie Kaplan, who carpooled, are the last to arrive, they aren't the only ones who got lost. None of the other five boardmembers were given directions, either, and most showed up late, ribbing each other and joking about whether the center is actually a top-secret military testing site.
But Merida is offended by the perceived slight. It's typical of the powers-that-be at DPS to withhold crucial information, she says, on everything from a controversial pension deal, to its policy on "unsatisfactory" teachers, to test scores — and it's one of the reasons she considered not even showing up to last month's day-long retreat.
The official purpose of the get-together was to strengthen the board's "capacity to practice good governance." But there was more to it than that. This board, which has been working together since December, has a reputation for being dysfunctional. The members are divided, with four on one side of many issues, and three, including Merida, on the other. The minority has been pegged as confrontational, ornery and loud — and Merida herself is often the loudest, the orneriest and the most willing to pick a fight.
It's landed her in hot water a couple of times over the past nine months, and now it has put her at the center of a recall attempt led by a community activist.
"She doesn't play well with others," says fellow boardmember Theresa Peña, who is not involved in the recall attempt. "Since she chooses to operate as a lone ranger rather than as [part of] a governing board, she can't achieve the goals she wanted to."
But others love Merida's approach. Rather than a bully, they see her as a bulldog who fights for her constituents and does her research. She asks tough questions, they say, and isn't afraid to ruffle bureaucratic feathers in an attempt to get answers.
"There's that quote: 'Well-behaved women rarely make history.' She reminds me of that quote," says Cindy Lowery, chair of the Democratic Party of Denver. "She's got a lot of guts and she's got a lot of balls, for lack of a better term. She's definitely willing to state her opinion. I respect that."
True to form, Merida is the first at the retreat to interrupt the outside facilitators. She asks a question. Then another. And when one of them posits that the board's role should be to craft district policy and leave the day-to-day work of running the schools — including responding to parent and teacher concerns — to the administration, Merida speaks up again. "This is great in theory," she says. "But the reality is, things are not fair. Things are not equal. For some of us, it's like pulling teeth to get information, and I have no reasonable assurance that's even going to happen.
"So I have no choice but to push."
Merida's tenure on the school board started with a bang.
Elected on November 3, 2009, Merida and two other new members, Nate Easley, and Mary Seawell, were scheduled to be sworn in on the evening of November 30 — after a regularly scheduled school board meeting. But just before 4:30 p.m. that day, Merida walked into DPS headquarters at 900 Grant Street and informed her predecessor, outgoing boardmember Michelle Moss, that she had found a judge to swear her in early.
A few minutes later, Moss, an eight-year veteran of the board, was in tears, and Merida had taken her seat at the dais. It was supposed to have been Moss's last meeting as the representative for southwest Denver, but Merida didn't think it was right to wait.
The meeting, after all, was controversial: The board was scheduled to vote on "turnaround" plans for the city's six lowest-performing schools. In several cases, the plans included closing the schools. In the case of Lake Middle School in northwest Denver, it meant co-locating a branch of the high-performing West Denver Prep charter school in the same building, a plan opposed by several vocal community members. Moss was for it. Merida opposed it. It was one of the issues she had campaigned on.
She also believed that, in addition to being unfair, it was illegal for the district to wait until after the vote to swear in the new boardmembers. State law says new school boardmembers should take office no more than ten days after the election results are certified, which had happened on November 19. That made November 30 day eleven.
"It seemed, among my advisors and me, that there was something funny, something rotten in Denmark," Merida says. She suspected the delay was so DPS could be sure it had enough votes to carry out its plan for Lake.