Seawell won’t seek re-election

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.

Board members Mary Seawell, left, and Andrea Merida during a break in Thursday's lengthy meeting.
Board members Mary Seawell, left, and Andrea Merida during a break in a school board meeting. <em> EdNews </em> file photo

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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede