Denver Public Schools' get-along retreat for board members: "People think we're nuts"

Last month, the DPS school board held a day-long retreat at the district's Balarat Outdoor Education Center. The seven-member board is divided on many issues, with four members in the majority and three -- including Andrea Merida, the subject of this week's feature -- in the minority. The retreat was to strengthen the board's "capacity to practice good governance," especially given the division.

Unlike the board's first retreat last December, it was not led by a marriage therapist. But that didn't stop the conversation from sounding like a lovers' quarrel.

The August 23 retreat got off to a rocky start when nearly everyone got lost getting there. Everyone, that is, except Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

That morning, Boasberg rode his bicycle the nineteen miles from his home in Boulder to Balarat for the 9 a.m. retreat. The woodsy center is perched atop a harrowing dirt road that branches off of a narrow mountain highway. Blink, and you'll miss it.

But not Boasberg, who was there on time. After ditching his bike outside, he hung out in his spandex and bare feet, and munched the muffins and fruit provided for breakfast until everyone else showed up. At which point, he changed into khakis and a polo shirt.

The retreat started with a PowerPoint given by two outside facilitators, one a former big-city school board member and one a former superintendent. Their spiel emphasized "policy governance," a structure that calls for board members to focus on policy decisions while the superintendent focuses on the day-to-day operations of the schools.

But a couple of board members, including Merida, said they don't totally abide by that idea. "My core issue is that I haven't signed on to this kind of structure," she said.

"Actually, you have signed on," board president Nate Easley said, pointing to one of the board's policies. Merida became frustrated by his remark and her voice grew tense. She told Easley that policy governance may work for him but it doesn't work for her because "you get information about what's happening (in the district). I don't!"

"That's your perception," Easley said. Soon, the two were talking over one another. The conversation became a jumble of voices, and one of the facilitators had to step in.

Later in the retreat, Easley explained his frustration. "It's hard to have a civil conversation when you feel personally attacked," he said. "Andrea, you do this."

The facilitators also handed out sample communications protocols that laid out how boardmembers should communicate with the superintendent, and vice versa.

Again, Merida spoke up. She suggested that the split on the board can be traced to some members (including herself) questioning the superintendent's decisions, while others "take everything he says as the truth." Merida said she wished the other board members had her back, not the superintendent's.

Mary Seawell, an even-handed board member who often votes with the majority, said she doesn't agree with being accountable to individual board members, but rather wants to be accountable to the entire board.

"I think the thing that's going to stop achievement in this district is this board. And that's really sad," she said. "I think people think we're nuts."

At one point, one of the facilitators tried to summarize the root of the board's problems. "You jumped right into the business of governing," he said. "You didn't have the orientation. You had the marriage counselor but --"

"We never had the honeymoon," Seawell said.

Everyone chuckled.