At noon, Polis says it's time for lunch, and the members grab plastic containers filled with appropriate fare that were moved into place following breakfast. After settling down with their grub, they listen to a presentation by Bill de la Cruz, who is on an action committee whose goal is closing the achievement gap between minority and Caucasian students. "I'm asking you to deal with this like it's a crisis," de la Cruz states forcefully, and his frustration is understandable. At a State Board of Education work session in December 2000 that was covered in these pages ("Making the Grades," January 4, 2001), he offered virtually the same plea. Almost four years later, the Cesar Chavez Academy is a rare exception to a distressing rule.
When de la Cruz finishes, his emotional words don't get a chance to linger for long. Suddenly, Gerwitz starts singing "Happy Birthday" to Polis. The rest of the people in the room look a bit confused, but several halfheartedly pipe up. As for Polis, he seems abashed and pleased at the same time. After Gerwitz wraps up the ditty with an aside ("And happy birthday to Randy last week"), he looks at the cake's single candle and says, "I'm only one."
Gerwitz cuts the cake, but most of the boardmembers pass on the dessert. In contrast, Polis takes a huge slab, shovels it down lickety-split and goes back for seconds. Shortly thereafter, he leaves the room. And he doesn't come back for a very long time.
Business called at that moment, as it does frequently for Polis, but he insists that his decision to answer it shouldn't bring his loyalty to the education board into question. He's dedicated to fulfilling his elective responsibility, he says. But not only does his high profile sometimes makes him seem bigger than the board (a situation lamented by several of the other members), but it magnifies the importance of everything he does. No wonder his disappearances set tongues wagging.
"All of us have to step out of meetings occasionally," concedes Randy DeHoff, the board's vice chairman. "But I think he spends an inordinate amount of time outside board meetings doing other things, and that's caused resentment among some boardmembers." Since Polis "has made no secret that he's got higher ambitions than the State Board of Education," says DeHoff, "I've always had questions about his commitment to this."
Clair Orr, who's been on the board for a decade, isn't quite as harsh, but he thinks that DeHoff has a point. Polis is the chairman, he says, and "maybe he has a little responsibility to say, 'Some of this has got to wait.'"
That's how Evie Hudak feels. In an e-mail exchange, she calls Polis's absences "more excessive than other members'. I have expressed some concern to him about it, and it has gotten better since then." Nonetheless, Polis "puts a tremendous amount of energy into his board work.... I'm sure he aspires to future political office (so, probably, do some other boardmembers), but he acts as if he is going nowhere else."
Republicans who wish he was gone entirely tried to use the 2000 census to hasten his departure. Board of Education members correspond to the state's congressional districts, and the Colorado constitution calls for an at-large seat like his to be added when the number of districts are even, to prevent deadlocks. During the '90s, Colorado had six districts, but the most recent census authorized a seventh. As such, former state house speaker Doug Dean reasoned that the term for the education board's at-large seat should end after two years instead of its normal length, six years, because a boardmember from the seventh district would be elected in 2002. Dean wasn't alone in this assumption. "I know Ben Alexander thought it would be a two-year term," DeHoff says. "Ben was assuming he'd serve for two years and then resign when we got a seventh congressional district, and we assumed Jared was feeling that way, too. But Jared said, 'I was elected to a six-year term.'"