Andrea Merida: Behind the scenes with Denver Public Schools' controversial board member

Our latest feature story, "Andrea Merida's Classroom Behavior Has Earned Her a Seat Apart on the Denver School Board," profiles Merida, the controversial DPS board member who, in ten months on the board, has butted heads with administrators, stood up for teachers when no one else would, and survived two recall attempts.

Here, we offer four bonus notes and quotes that add more color to Merida's portrait.

On August 16, the DPS board held its first work session of the 2010-11 school year. It was a tense time; ten days earlier, the New York Times had published a story condemning DPS -- and specifically Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former-superintendent, now-U.S. Senator Michael Bennet -- for orchestrating an "exotic transaction" concerning the district's pension fund that, according to the Times, threatened to plunge DPS deeper into debt.

Boasberg was chipper as he entered the DPS board room at 900 Grant Street. He asked the board members about their summers, and he joked about reading about the district in the paper during his out-of-state vacation, which he cut short to return to Denver to rebut the Times' claims.

"Was that a shock?" Merida asked him, with a good-natured laugh.

Then, she added, "Oh, it's on, Boasberg. It's on."

According to Merida's father, Jorge, their last name comes from a town in Spain of the same name that was founded by discharged Roman soldiers. In the fictional movie Gladiator, the main character, Maximus, is from Merida.

Though she's proud to be Latina, Merida, who served in the U.S. Army in the 1980s, is also fiercely American. At the August 20 kickoff event for a radio program aimed at teaching English to Spanish-speaking DPS parents (and community members), Merida chatted with Alex Sanchez, the director of DPS's Multicultural Outreach Office. Sanchez asked Merida where her family was from, and when she said that her mother was from Guatemala, Sanchez pointed to a Guatemalan ambassador.

"We have someone here from your country," he said excitedly.

"This is my country, man," Merida told him. "I was born in one of the thirteen original colonies!" Merida was born in New York after her parents immigrated here.

That said, Merida is quick to correct non-Spanish speaking boardmembers' pronunciation of Spanish words. At the board work session on August 16, Jeannie Kaplan asked a question about one of the district's Spanish-language standardized tests, called Escritura. But she tripped over the pronunciation of the word.

"Es-cri-tu-ra," Merida said to Kaplan, drawing out the syllables. "No speak-a."

"That's for sure, unfortunately," Kaplan said.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar