By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
On election day, Merida won by 116 votes.
One of the first things the new DPS school board did was meet with a marriage therapist. The session had been scheduled much earlier, but it garnered more media attention given Merida's controversial swearing-in. According to Education News Colorado, the session appeared to forge closer bonds on the board, a hodgepodge of four old members and three new ones. At one point, while members were discussing the sometimes-disputed role of Superintendent Tom Boasberg, they seemed to come to a momentary understanding — and Merida joked that she wanted to give Boasberg a hug.
But over the next several months, that didn't happen. Through her votes and her website and in interviews, Merida increasingly questioned and criticized the decisions of district officials. She also accused them of withholding information from her. ("This is simply not true," says DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn. "We work very hard to respond to all board inquiries and provide answers to all boardmembers.")
Meanwhile, the divide on the board — with Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez on one side and Peña, Easley, Seawell and Bruce Hoyt on the other — deepened.
On January 11, Merida and Jimenez voted against supporting the state's first Race to the Top application, for $377 million in federal education reform grant money. Merida doesn't like Race to the Top; she sees it as a way for the federal government to "hold cash-strapped school districts over the barrel." But in voting no, she also criticized DPS for not gathering enough input from parents before asking boardmembers to support the application.
In February, she disagreed with Boasberg's proposal to limit the "forced placement" of veteran DPS teachers in low-performing schools, arguing instead that the entire DPS teacher-evaluation process was flawed. She introduced a resolution that would have required the district to come up with a new process in ninety days, but retracted it after Peña issued an amendment to Merida's resolution that would have negated it.
In March, she hit "reply all" to an e-mailed DPS press release about how twice as many students had signed up for the new sixth-grade options at Lake Middle School than the number of sixth-graders who currently attended school there. The press release hailed the "turnaround" at Lake, but Merida wanted to make sure the media didn't give all the credit to DPS. "Let's be clear that the reason these numbers are strong is because of the intense grassroots organizing of the Lake IB community," she wrote.
That same month, she, Kaplan and Jimenez asked DPS for more information about a complicated 2008 financial deal that refinanced its pension debt.
Kaplan wouldn't comment for this story, despite numerous calls and e-mails; neither would Jimenez. But Kaplan had been asking about the deal since 2008 because she said she feared it was a financial trap that was causing the district to lose tens of millions of dollars.
Crafted and pitched by former DPS superintendent and current U.S. Senate candidate Michael Bennet and Boasberg, who served as DPS's chief operating officer, the deal was supposed to fully fund the district's pension fund, which had a shortfall of about $400 million at the time. It involved putting up some DPS school buildings as collateral and issuing what are called Pension Certificates of Participation, or PCOPS.
But instead of issuing fixed-rate debt, DPS decided to issue variable-rate PCOPS coupled with what's known as an interest rate swap. When the financial market crashed and interest rates plummeted, DPS wound up paying $64.4 million in payments and fees in 2009. Boasberg has argued that the payment was a wash. If the district hadn't refinanced its pension debt, it would have ended up paying $64 million in costs anyway, he says. Plus, he claims the deal will save money in the future and has already saved the district more than $20 million compared to previous pension obligations — which he says has allowed it to avoid the teacher layoffs and furlough days other districts have endured.
Boasberg declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Boasberg's math doesn't jibe with the calculations done by Kaplan, Jimenez and Merida, who have continued to push for more numbers, more spreadsheets and, most recently, an independent financial advisor for the board.
Merida doesn't think Boasberg and Bennet set out to lose money when they crafted the deal. But she does think that because both men have a financial background — Bennet formerly worked for the Anschutz Investment Company and Boasberg was in acquisitions at Level 3 Communications — the two were used to taking financial risks. You can't do that with public money, she says. Even though the deal, which extends for thirty years, may prove beneficial in the end, she says, "we're losing money on the deal right now." In her view, DPS should shift to a "straight-up fixed-rate refinance."
But first, she wants Boasberg and DPS to provide the answers that she, Kaplan and Jimenez have been after. "We're going to fight. It's going to be war," she says.
In the end, Merida got more war than she bargained for.
On July 21, she wrote an op-ed in the Post blasting Bennet and fellow boardmember Peña over comments they had made about local neighborhoods.