Correction: The total amount of money raised by Mary Seawell in 2009 was inaccurate in an earlier version of this story. The error has been fixed.
In a stunning development that is sure to further enliven a campaign season already underway in Denver Public Schools, school board President Mary Seawell said Monday that she will not seek re-election in November.
Seawell, who previously said she planned to seek a second four-year term in the at-large seat, said she decided not to run due to increasing work and family demands.
Seawell is a stalwart member of a slim 4-3 board majority that supports a slate of reforms pushed by Superintendent Tom Boasberg. A political shift in one seat could have a dramatic impact on the future direction of the school district.
Seawell said she has pondered making this “really hard decision” for a few weeks. Seawell began working full-time in December as a program manager for the Gates Family Foundation after working part-time as a consultant, a change she said has made it increasingly challenging to fulfill her board obligations – not to mention launch an aggressive re-election campaign. In addition, she has three daughters, one aged 11 who attends McAuliffe International School and 7-year-old twins at Polaris at Ebert.
“There’s not enough time in my day and my week,” said Seawell, who described voluntary board service as a “full-time job.” “I already feel I’m not seeing my family enough….I had to make the decision….I just know it’s the right thing.”
Boasberg said, “Mary is a an extraordinary leader and I will miss her leadership greatly.”
“She cares passionately about the children of Denver and her work and leading critical reforms and helping drive a community consensus around the need for the bond and the mill levy will have a lasting impact on our city.”
Board colleague Anne Rowe, who described herself as one of Seawell’s “biggest fans,” said she understood Seawell’s decision but noted that her leadership will be missed on the board.
“It is quite a balancing act,” Rowe said. “But she is putting the most important parts of her life first. I know she will continue to have an impact.”
Rowe said Seawell has “done so much for the kids of Denver that it’s hard to put into words.”
“I respect her decision and understand it, but we will go forward,” said Rowe midday Monday as she headed out to meet Seawell to discuss work on the Denver Plan, a comprehensive agenda for moving Denver Public Schools forward.
The board is holding a retreat Saturday to discuss the Denver Plan and other issues.
“The district faces immense challenges now that threaten to spin out of control,” board colleague Andrea Merida said. “The only way we can successfully meet those challenges as board members is to rise above the minutiae of personalities. Mary and I have worked hard on that, and I have great respect for her commitment and concern for Denver’s students.”
Election season underway
Once word gets out, new names are sure to surface of people vying for the board seat. Already, Michael Kiley has announced he will run for the at-large seat now held by Seawell. In addition, Meg Schomp has announced a campaign to fill the central Denver seat now held by Jeannie Kaplan, who is term-limited. Both Kiley and Schomp are vocal critics of the reforms pushed by Boasberg and his predecessor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. senator.
Merida has indicated she will seek re-election for her Southwest Denver seat. And Landri Taylor, the newly minted representative of Northeast Denver, has said he will also run.
Once again, the campaigns – already revving up seven months before Election Day – are likely to highlight what seems to be a growing divide over how the district should move forward to improve academic growth for all students. Board members Seawell, Taylor, Rowe and Happy Haynes generally support the reform agenda as it’s be implemented by Boasberg; while board members Merida, Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez oppose the superintendent’s vision and say the district is short-changing neighborhood schools as it promotes charters and other innovative school models.
The politicking will be fierce, as will be the fundraising. Four years ago, Seawell outspent all other DPS board candidates. She raised a record-setting $240,605 for a Colorado school board candidate and won 71 percent of the vote.
“I do believe the campaigns themselves are going to be very time-consuming – much more time-consuming than they were last time,” Seawell said, noting that four years ago campaigns didn’t start ramping up until July or August.
It’s no secret that serving on the DPS school board can be a thankless and stressful job, especially when meetings last for hours and philosophical divisions spill into outright hostility.
Most recently, Seawell found herself in the hot seat over her decision to name Taylor, head of the Denver Urban League, to fill the seat formerly held by Nate Easley. The Denver chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum accused Seawell of going through a process to open the seat to interested members of the public only to select the “anointed candidate” that certain board members “wanted all along.” The group even filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the process.
But Seawell said the divisiveness on the board, which some have recently labeled as complete dysfunction, was not a factor in her decision to leave her position in November.
“I’ve really adapted with that being the landscape on the board and figured out a way to be pretty high-functioning,” Seawell said.
Life/work balance lacking
Seawell said she began to think more seriously about board service in her own life as she sought to convince candidates from District 4 in Northeast Denver that they could balance work and family to serve on the school board when Easley resigned. But, in the end, she said she realized that school board service is “structured against people who have young kids and work full-time.”
“I was trying to convince people it was doable,” she said. “I knew in my heart it just isn’t.”
Seawell said she believes a reform-minded candidate will surface and win enough votes to fill her seat in November.
“I’m not worried,” she said. “The city has consistently been reform-oriented.”
She noted the strong margin of success for 3A and 3B, the $466 million bond issue and $49 million operating tax increase that voters approved in November.
In fact, Seawell said her work to support the tax package was one of the most important things she’s done during her years on the board. And, despite the long nights and challenging political environment, Seawell had only good words for her work on the board over the past four years in general.
In a news release, she said, “We haven’t always agreed on everything, but together we have accomplished a great deal. I am especially proud of helping DPS make the successful case for more investment in our classrooms through the passage of 3A+3B, establishing higher quality standards for new schools, and fostering a collaborative working relationship with DCTA that led to a new collective bargaining agreement without conflict.”
And she said she looks forward to her work over the next seven months when she won’t have to worry about winning re-election.
“It is the most important and fulfilling work I have ever don in my life,” she said. “For people that want to be in the most important place in the country right now – the important work in education – this experience is like nothing else. I have so much love for the school district and the people who work for it.”