Election 2017

Divisive fliers cause candidates in heated Denver school board race to come together

PHOTO: Courtesy Tay Anderson
From left to right: Jennifer Bacon, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson in City Park.

Three candidates locked in a battle for a northeast Denver school board seat came together in a show of unity Saturday after unsigned negative fliers appeared on the campaign trail, including one that sought to sow racial division.

The black-and-white fliers appear homemade and anonymous; unlike legitimate campaign literature, they do not say who made them.

They urge voters to choose Jennifer Bacon, a community organizer who formerly worked for Teach for America and has been endorsed by the Denver teachers union. Bacon said her campaign is not responsible for the fliers, which she denounced as negative.

Bacon and her opponents, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson, met in City Park Saturday to make a minute-and-a-half-long video message that all three posted on their Facebook pages. Sitting together on a bench, the candidates took turns speaking.

Anderson: “…Outside groups have invested to support one candidate or another, and we are condemning hateful rhetoric from all outside groups…”

Bacon: “…We want to be sure that we are focusing on the issues that are important to each of us. At the end of the day, we’re all in this for our kids…”

Espiritu: “…We know that after Nov. 7 (Election Day) we will need to continue to stay focused on the interests of our students. When they do well, our community does well…”

In an interview, Bacon said the flier attacking Anderson is particularly disappointing. The flier says “Denver’s real black leaders stand with” Bacon, who is black. Anderson is also black and has been endorsed by the city’s first African-American mayor, Wellington Webb.

“My soul hurt,” Bacon said. “I’ve made it a point to not be divisive in the black community. That has come in the form of not disrespecting or denigrating Tay, no matter what I get from him.”

Bacon said she learned of the flier Friday when someone alerted her to a Facebook post about it by Anderson, a recent high school graduate who has run a social-media-savvy campaign. Anderson said he learned of it from Espiritu, who said she found one on the ground while canvassing in Five Points, and from neighbors who found them on their doors.

Another flier that surfaced in Stapleton attacks Espiritu, the incumbent in the race and the mother of two Denver Public Schools students. It says she “thinks that being a parent makes her an expert” but DPS families “deserve someone with real classroom experience.”

Combative rhetoric and contentious accusations have marked this year’s Denver school board election, although the fliers are the most personal attacks to date. Four of the seven board seats are up for election, which means voters could flip the board’s balance of power.

All seven current board members, including Espiritu, agree with the direction of the district, which is nationally known for collaborating with charter schools and embracing school choice.

Bacon and Anderson have said, to varying degrees, that they’d like it to change.

Mailers sent by union-backed independent political committees urging voters to elect Bacon have tied Espiritu to President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a school choice champion who also supports private school vouchers. Espiritu does not.

Anderson previously decried those mailers, as well, posting on Facebook that it was “disgusting” to compare Espiritu, an immigrant from the Phillipines, to Trump. In an interview Saturday, he questioned why Bacon has not done the same.

Bacon said that while she doesn’t think Espiritu is “a bad person (or) is someone who is trying to deliberately hurt her community,” she doesn’t agree with her policies.

“School choice and the competition-based model is a slippery slope,” Bacon said, adding that the policies the current board supports are the same as those pushed by conservatives.

“That’s why it’s scary,” she said.

Espiritu and other current board members have repeatedly denounced DeVos and Trump’s policies. Espiritu also has said she believes in allowing families to choose schools that are right for them from a variety of options.

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.