referendum on reform

Aurora school board candidate dollars trickle in as most money in race is coming from outside groups

A kindergartner flips the page while reading in class at Crawford Elementary in Aurora. (Denver Post file)

New campaign finance reports filed Friday show direct cash contributions for Aurora’s school board candidates have slowed down.

Each candidate’s total amount raised has moved only slightly compared to almost three weeks ago. Miguel In Suk Lovato remains the candidate with the most raised to date with $16,516, up from $14,181 in last month’s report.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick again failed to file a campaign finance report.

The election is high stakes, as Aurora Public Schools has been launching new reforms and inviting charter schools to the district. The four seats up for grabs could represent a majority on the seven-member board and the election could change the district’s direction.

Some of the large, new contributions reported included Patrick Hamill, CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributing $1,000 to the campaign of Gail Pough, and Ken Tuchman, CEO of TeleTech, a company that outsources customer service, contributing $750 to Lovato’s.

New totals: How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $11,906.32; $8,812.81
  • Lea Steed,$1,790; $895.97
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,385.80; $3,346.38
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,589.72
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,516; $13,239.20
  • Jane Barber, $675; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $9,253.11; $2,635.46
  • Marques Ivey, $5,473.23; $3,582.57
  • Barbara Yamrick – did not file

The group Middle Age Democratic Women, or MAD Women, donated to Pough and Jane Barber
The larger contributions reported in Friday’s filings were not cash donations, but rather in-kind services. Union-endorsed candidates — Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Debbie Gerkin, Marques Ivey and Kevin Cox — all reported large contributions of in-kind services totaling more than $12,700 for mail from the union-affiliated Public Education Committee and $3,996.50 for office space and printing contributed by the Aurora Council for Teachers and Students.

Those four candidates also reported new campaign reimbursements in an attempt to clear up what otherwise could be a campaign finance violation. Candidate committees are not allowed under Colorado law to contribute to other candidate committees.

Armstrong-Romero said Friday that what appear as contributions are reimbursements that the slate members are giving each other when one candidate pays up front for joint advertisements. Armstrong-Romero said she and the other candidates have been in touch with state officials about the matter, and no formal complaint had been filed according to state records.

Friday’s finance reports only show a piece of the money being spent to influence voters. Earlier in the week, independent expenditure committees updated their finance reports with the state.

Two committees, one affiliated with teachers unions and one affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, together have spent more than $225,400 on trying to sway the Aurora school board election just in the second half of October. That includes filings showing more than $32,000 in spending in the last few days before Election Day on Tuesday.

Voters in this election are split between Adams and Arapahoe counties. As of Friday morning the Secretary of State’s office reported Adams County voters had returned 32,904 ballots and Arapahoe County voters had turned in 50,449 ballots.

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.