Colorado Votes 2017

Spending on Colorado school board races by outside groups surpasses $1.5 million

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Outside groups seeking to influence school board races in the Denver-metro area continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at a steady clip, new records show.

Political committees linked to education reform advocates and teachers unions spent nearly $600,000 between Oct. 12 and Oct. 31 in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County school board races. That brings the reported total spent on races in those three school districts to $1.65 million this election cycle.

And committees still have plenty of time and money to spend before Election Day, Nov. 7. Given how much cash the groups have on hand, the total could surpass $2 million.

The investments from outside groups in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County — where education reform advocates and teachers unions are locked in heated battles for control — are a sharp contrast to dozens of school districts across the state where elections have been canceled due to a lack of interest.

In Denver, committees that support candidates who will keep the district on its current path — which includes supporting a mix of school types, more autonomy for school leaders and closing persistently low-performing schools — are outspending critics by more than 2-to-1.

The dynamics — and the type of reform efforts — differ in Douglas County. There, a political committee that supports candidates who want change has outpaced a Republican-backed committee that supports candidates who have promised to keep alive a legal fight over the district’s private school voucher program.

And in Aurora, a new education battleground, those who support that district’s policies — including turning to charter school operators to lift student performance — are about on the same financial footing as opponents in support from independent committees.

The new figures come from a Chalkbeat analysis of fresh campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office. The reports include donations and contributions between Oct. 12 and Oct. 25. Political groups known as “independent expenditure committees” were required to report new contribution and spending totals by midnight Monday. Chalkbeat is also including additional spending after Oct. 25 and reported by committees.

The political committees are allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates.

The money spent by these committees is just one piece to understanding the money behind school board races in the Centennial State. Individual candidates must also report fundraising totals, and another round of those reports are due Friday.

The public, though, will never know the true scope of spending to win school board races.

Political nonprofits such as Americans For Prosperity, which is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and supports conservative education reform principles, pledged to spend “six figures” to push private school vouchers in Douglas County.

The use of vouchers is a central tension in the Douglas County race. Because of Americans for Prosperity’s federal tax status and because it is not supporting or opposing candidates, it’s not required to disclose how much it spends.

With seven days left until Election Day, here’s a look at how much money committees have spent on mailers, digital ads and consultants:

Denver, the state’s largest school district, continues to attract the most money.

Raising Colorado, a committee linked to the political nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform, has spent more than $345,000 to support school board incumbents and candidates who support the direction of the district and Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Those candidates include Barbara O’Brien, Mike Johnson, Rachele Espiritu and Angela Cobian. Raising Colorado has also spent part of its war chest, $13,765, on a mailer against Espiritu’s competition Jennifer Bacon, records show.

Meanwhile, Every Student Succeeds, a committee connected to the teachers union, has spent a total of $115,000 to support Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan, who is opposing Cobian in southwest Denver.

Our Denver Our Schools, backed by a nonprofit with the same name, launched Oct. 16 and has spent $6,080 to support Carrie Olson, Robert Speth, Tay Anderson and Gaytan. All four candidates have promised to slow down the district’s reform efforts.

Families First Colorado, a committee backed by the conservative education reform nonprofit Ready Colorado, spent more than $4,300 to back incumbent Espiritu.

In Aurora, Raising Colorado has spent $149,322 to support three candidates — Gail Pough, Miguel In Suk Lovato and Lea Stead — who support the district’s school improvement efforts, which include attracting Denver-based charter school networks such as DSST.

Every Student Succeeds put another $100,000 in the race, bringing its total support of a slate of candidates endorsed by the Aurora teachers union to $185,966.

Families First Colorado spent $19,116 on supporting Pough and Lovato.

Spending has slowed in Douglas County. The only reported spending between Oct. 12 and Oct. 31 was by a committee backed by high profile Republicans. The Republican Committee spent $54,000 to support the Elevate Douglas County slate. Those four candidates — Debora Scheffel, Randy Mills, Grant Nelson and Ryan Abresch — generally support the direction of the district and have promised to keep alive a legal battle over the district’s private school voucher program.

The GOP-backed committee this fall has also spent nearly $125,000 on consultants, but records don’t identify which candidates the consultants were working to support or oppose. The committee paid one group, Purple State Communications, $20,000 for mailers supporting the Elevate slate, and $11,000 for consulting, records show.

A committee backing a slate of candidates — Krista Holtzmann, Chris Schor, Kevin Leung and Anthony Graziano — that has promised to end the voucher court case didn’t report any spending. However, it did receive a $15,000 donation from a group linked to the Colorado Education Association, the state’s teachers union, to help the CommUnity Matters slate.

That puts the Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids committee’s war chest to use in the last week of the election at $148,577. The Republican Committee, which is used to support Republican candidates in other races as well, has $331,108 on hand.

Another group, Douglas County Parents, which has a political committee designation with the state and can coordinate with candidates, has so far raised more than $42,000 to help boost the CommUnity Matters slate.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Douglas County Parents as an independent expenditure committee. It’s a political committee, which means it can coordinate directly with candidates. This post has also been updated to include additional information about spending by the a GOP-backed committee in Douglas County. This article has also been updated to correct an error that said the said the Douglas Schools committee received an $85,000 donation from NEA. It was a $15,000 donation from CEA.

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.