At that point, it was well known that Merida was a supporter of Bennet's Democratic primary opponent, Andrew Romanoff. So were Kaplan and Jimenez. It was also well known that Peña volunteered as Bennet's campaign treasurer, that Seawell, Easley and Hoyt supported him and that Boasberg was his lifelong friend and political ally.

What wasn't known was that Merida had been working for the Romanoff campaign for two months, earning $2,500 a month as a consultant on issues such as education and immigration. Merida says she also helped the campaign translate documents from English to Spanish and did some field organizing.

That information came out two days later, setting off a firestorm of controversy. Moss called Merida's position with Romanoff a "secret arrangement" that "suggests she is not interested in serving our community so much as in advancing her own financial interests and those of her political patrons." Romanoff did not return e-mails or calls placed to his staff for this story.

Andrea Merida (far right) and company at a recent board meeting.
Anthony Camera
Andrea Merida (far right) and company at a recent board meeting.

All of a sudden, Merida had given her opponents invaluable ammunition. Her questions about the pension fund could now be seen as nothing more than political posturing, perfectly timed at the height of a heated primary battle.

Merida insists that wasn't the case. She chalks up the non-disclosure of her paid position to political naiveté and says she never let her position influence her work with DPS. Still, a few days after the story broke, she resigned from the campaign.

"I don't want anybody to think for a second that I don't take my job [as a school board member] seriously," she says. "They elected me to do something for the kids."

It's back-to-school night at Castro Elementary School, 845 South Lowell Boulevard, a bright, handsome building in a working-class neighborhood in southwest Denver. Merida, dressed in black suit pants, a white suit jacket and black heels, is wandering through the busy hallways. The school is swarming with excited kids and their parents and grandparents, many of whom are pushing baby strollers. Most of the families speak either Spanish or Vietnamese; at Castro, more than 90 percent of the students are minorities, and more than 60 percent are English-language learners.

Merida stops into a kindergarten classroom that is momentarily empty save for the fresh-faced teacher. "Hi, I'm Andrea Merida, your school board representative," she says, then starts asking questions about the ethnic makeup of the incoming class.

"Now, do you speak Spanish?" she asks. The teacher, who is white, says no.

Merida's question, which she asks several more teachers that night, epitomizes what some say is her greatest strength: her tireless advocacy for what she thinks is best for the children of her district, many of whom are poor and come from homes where English isn't the primary language.

"Andrea represents her constituency," says Denver City Council member Paul Lopez, who represents some of the same neighborhoods. "She's very passionate about what she fights for. These are schools on the brink of going into the red. In advocating for those families, you have to be bold."

At board meetings, Merida often asks questions about how the district's policies will affect ELL students, which is DPS's acronym for English-language learners. Though she's not alone — it's a major concern for DPS, where 31 percent of students fit that criterion, and questions about it are common — some say she's especially in touch with the issues affecting those families.

"She's great with our Spanish-speaking parents," says Amber Tafoya, an attorney and former candidate for state representative in House District 4. Whenever Tafoya heard a complaint or concern about DPS while going door-to-door during her recent primary campaign, she referred it to Merida, who she says always responded promptly.

Since the DPS school year started on August 19, Merida has attended several back-to-school nights at schools in southwest Denver, like Castro, Denison Montessori and the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy. She's also dropped by West Denver Prep's Harvey Park campus, where she observed snippets of several classroom lessons with principal Josh Smith. After watching a teacher mispronounce a Hispanic student's name, Merida turned to Smith. "Are some teachers just having a hard time pronouncing some names?" she asked. "It's 'Heh-rarr-doh.' Not 'Jih-rar-doh.'"

Merida keeps a detailed calendar of her school visits on her website. In fact, she's the only boardmember with an active website. She uses it to recap board meetings and offer her opinions on DPS goings-on. Sometimes she issues calls to action there, as well: In January, she posted Boasberg's e-mail address and phone number and encouraged taxpayers to ask why 45 DPS executives received $344,565 in bonuses last year.

Merida also uses Facebook and Twitter, often tweeting updates from the board's meeting room. She goes to meetings equipped with a laptop and two BlackBerries — a personal one and a DPS one.

She's also accessible in person. On October 4, Merida will host a town hall meeting at John F. Kennedy High School for "an open discussion about district finances, goals for the 2010-2011 school year, board dynamics...and whatever question YOU have."

"Whenever a reformer comes into DPS and tries to make a difference, they are chastised because the cliques have been formed," her father points out. "And the cliques are a bunch of 'yes' people. Somebody like my daughter, like Jeannie Kaplan, like Arturo Jimenez, they do understand, they do research. They don't just swallow what they're given."

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