3 Colorado school board elections draw big money from both sides of choice debate

Author: Marianne Goodland - November 2, 2017 - Updated: November 3, 2017

(istockphoto, NosUA)

The Nov. 7 election, dominated by school board races, is shaping up as a referendum on school choice, in the form of both charter schools, as in Denver and Jefferson County, and vouchers, as in Douglas County.

And just how much is at stake can be seen in how much money is being spent, nearly $2 million as of October 13, with two weeks to go before the November 7 election. The biggest fights are bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside groups battling for and against school choice in Denver and Douglas County.

Nowhere is that fight bigger, or is more at stake, than in Douglas County.

Four seats, all held by conservative education reformers who back the county’s first-of-a-kind school voucher program, are up for grabs in two weeks. The Elevate Douglas County slate, which includes former state Board of Education member Debora Scheffel, hopes to hold their slim pro-voucher majority on the seven-member board. The opposing slate of four candidates, all who oppose the vouchers, is informally referred to as the Dream Team slate, and includes Kevin Leung, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that put the school district’s voucher program on hold.
The race is being watched all over the country because of what will happen to the voucher program. Should the anti-voucher candidates win one of the four seats up for election, the three board members not facing a vote have vowed to end the voucher program, which would render the lawsuit that has made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again, moot.

The Elevate slate will have to win all four open seats in this most Republican of counties in order to keep the conservative pro-voucher majority. That majority would allow the lawsuit to continue, possibly allowing it to make its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision.

The program, known as Choice Scholarships, is the first in the nation to be set up by a school district. It’s different than other voucher programs in other states, which mostly target low-income children in failing schools, such as the landmark program that started it all, the vouchers for Cleveland public schools. That program also was vetted and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

Douglas County is the fifth wealthiest county in the nation, and the district’s voucher program is not limited to low-income families nor failing schools, according to the district’s website. The program would allow any Douglas County student to get a taxpayer-funded voucher, with an estimated value of around $5,000, to attend any private school, even those not located in Douglas County.

It was the board’s approval in 2011 of the use of taxpayer dollars for private schools that led to a lawsuit to prevent its implementation by a group known as Taxpayers for Public Education.

The lawsuit was based on something known as the Blaine amendment, which forbids the use of state dollars for religious purposes, primarily education. Its rooted in the 19th century, when a Maine senator wanted to make sure public dollars did not go to Catholic schools. While he was not successful in getting it added to the U.S. Constitution, more than three dozen states adopted it, including Colorado, which accepted it as a condition of statehood.

The Colorado Supreme Court declared the Douglas County voucher program unconstitutional in 2015, based on the Blaine amendment. From there, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and sat for about 18 months. Part of that long delay came after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who would likely have provided the fifth vote in favor of the program. Without Scalia, the Supreme Court likely would have tied 4-4 on the case if they’d agreed to hear it, allowing the Colorado decision to stand.

Instead, the Court this year took up another Blaine-related case, from Missouri, and in May ruled in favor of a Lutheran church that challenged the Blaine prohibition, although that was over playground filler, not classrooms. A month later, the Court sent the voucher lawsuit back to the Colorado Supreme Court to re-review its decision. The Colorado justices sent the case back to the lower district court, where it now sits.


Douglas County: Show me the money
The Douglas school board contest is one of two big school board elections in Colorado to draw in substantial dollars from outside the state.

The American Federation of Teachers, which is affiliated with the local teacher’s union, the Douglas Federation of Teachers, has kicked in $300,000. That money went to an independent expenditure committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, which backs the anti-voucher candidates.

A six-figure “social welfare” education campaign reportedly has been paid for by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The campaign encourages support for “school choice.” As a social welfare organization, and under IRS rules, AFP cannot directly advocate for candidates, nor does it have to disclose its donors. But the campaign can encourage people to support “school choice.”

An independent expenditure committee run by the Colorado Republican Party also spent $67,000 to support the pro-voucher slate, all in October. It’s the only school board race the state party has weighed in on.

The amount of outside money pouring into Douglas County far exceeds what the candidates themselves have been able to raise, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s TRACER database. Grant Nelson of the Elevate slate leads all candidates with just over $34,000 raised.

There’s one other sector that has been spending money on the DougCo races, although how much will never be known — religious organizations like the Catholic Church and the Christian nonprofit Colorado Family Action.
Last month the bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael Sheridan, sent a letter to Catholic parishioners in Douglas County, under the Colorado Springs archdiocese, urging a vote for candidates who support school choice, and calling the Colorado constitution “a barrier to voucher programs, like the one at stake in Douglas County.” That didn’t sit well with Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who told Colorado Politics that Sheridan’s letter may violate the church’s tax-exempt status.

One area Catholic church, St. Thomas More in Englewood, held an October 16 meeting on the election, which it called a vote “to protect and expand parental choice in Douglas County.” A recording of the event, obtained by Colorado Politics, included remarks from Jennifer Kraska, executive director for the Colorado Catholic Conference.
“We have to look at those candidates and who is going to support true school choice in Douglas County,” Kraska said.
She also spoke at length against the Blaine amendment, stating that if the courts rule in favor of the voucher program, the ruling will turn Blaine on its head, both in Colorado and nationally. “What’s at stake in the Douglas County election is Blaine,” she said, adding that voters should “see where the candidates are when it comes to choice.”

Another Christian group, Colorado Family Action, has distributed a voter’s guide to local churches that was available at the St. Thomas More event. The guide has responses from the four pro-voucher candidates; the anti-voucher candidates did not respond to the group’s questionnaire, which solicited an opinion on the voucher lawsuit. CFA is not registered as a campaign committee with the Secretary of State, so the cost of the voter’s guide is unknown.
Neither Sheridan nor the CFA responded to a call for comment.


Denver: Show me the money
Big money is also the name of the game in Denver, where ten candidates are vying for four seats on the Denver Public Schools board of education. Sarah Reckhow, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied the influence of big money in school board races, believes the DPS races show the growing divide within the Democratic Party over the issue of school choice, a rift that is playing out in local school districts around the country. The big money nowadays, she explained, comes from pro-charter Democratic-affiliated organizations like Stand for Children and Education Reform Now.

Indeed, the candidates on the pro-charter school side are the ones raking in big dollars in the Denver race. They’re backed by two independent expenditures committees that have collectively raised more than $825,000.
Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee, has received $625,000 from Education Reform Now, a New York-based nonprofit whose board is populated by hedge fund directors and other wealthy investors. Education Reform Now is tied to Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter schools organization. Independent expenditure committees cannot coordinate with candidates.

Another group putting big money into the pro-charter school side: Stand for Children, based in Portland, OR, which has put $100,000 of its money into Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, another independent expenditure committee.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has also contributed $174,000 to two independent expenditure committees, Every Student Succeeds and Brighter Futures for Denver, both which back candidates who are opposed to charter schools or at least want to see more accountability.

The Colorado Education Association, which is affiliated with the DCTA, has also been a player in the 2017 election, putting $172,000 into Every Student Succeeds, although some of that money has supported candidates in Aurora, Mesa Valley and Jeffco.

All seven current members of the DPS school board have continued to back charter and innovation schools, which now make up more than half of all schools in DPS.

Only one of the four seats to be decided on November 7 is an open seat; three pro-charter incumbents are running for re-election.

The incumbents are at-large member and former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien; Rachele Espiritu, who represents district 4 (Stapleton and Montbello); and Mike Johnson in district 3 (Park Hill, south to George Washington High School).
The open seat is in district 2, southwest Denver, with two challengers: Angela Cobian, who is backed by the pro-charter committees, and Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan.

In the category of candidate fundraising, O’Brien has raised more than $101,000 on her own; Cobian has taken in more than $94,000, Johnson has raised at least $82,000 and Espiritu has brought in $73,000.

Their opponents have not done nearly as well. In the at-large race, Robert Speth has taken in $21,000 and Julie Banuelos has received just over $7,000. In district 2, challenger Gaytan has received $24,000 so far in cash contributions. In district 3, challenger Carrie Olson has taken in $18,000. And in district 4, a three-way race, challenger Tay Johnson has receive $16,000; Jennifer Bacon, who is backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, has received $60,000 so far.


JeffCo: Show me the money
Two years ago a slate of five candidates backed by local, state and national teachers unions won in an election that included a recall of three conservative education reformers. The race in JeffCo this year lacks the intensity of the recall effort, but you wouldn’t know it from the dollars that are pouring into the incumbent campaigns.

What’s at stake in this election is the direction of the school district. The current board has only approved one charter school in the past two years, and that was only after the state Board of Education in effect ordered the Jeffco board to accept the charter. In recent weeks, the district has tangled with another charter, Golden View Classical Academy, over a late financial audit. The school claimed the district withheld its funding, a claim the district denies. The board also has taken heat for approving the closure of one elementary school that serves a low-income population (Pleasant View near Golden) and decided to move sixth-graders into middle school beginning in 2018.
For the 2017 election, the conservative education side couldn’t even find enough candidates to challenge the three incumbents. In August, a Facebook page for Jefferson County Republicans sent out a plea for someone — anyone — to run against the Democrats. (Although school board races are allegedly nonpartisan, that assertion doesn’t fool many these days, especially in JeffCo.)

Two candidates, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, both filed to run on the last possible day. Since then, their fundraising has been lackluster, with less than $6,000 taken in — total — for both of them.

The incumbents, on the other hand, are raising money like it was 2015 all over again.

Incumbent Brad Rupert has already raised more for his 2017 re-election bid (almost $49,000) than he did for his 2015 win, with two weeks to go before the election. Fellow incumbent Susan Harmon is just $1,000 shy of what she raised in 2015, at $45,000, and is expected to surpass that 2015 total before Election Day. Board President Ron Mitchell has raised more than $32,000 in a contest where he doesn’t even have an opponent. Harmon and Rupert have received sizable cash and in-kind donations from the local and state teachers unions.

There’s a message in that fundraising, according to independent political analyst Eric Sondermann.

“Money in politics can be a tremendous asset but also a deterrent,” Sondermann told Colorado Politics. In Jefferson County, he said, money is being used for its deterrent effect. Big dollars are being spent to persuade conservatives that running for the school board is waste of time and money because the other side can outspend and has the ground game to make sure they continue to hold the majority.

Conservatives held the majority on the school board for just two years, and Sondermann believes the “establishment and union powers now in charge want to make sure the apple cart doesn’t get upset and the (current) majority has more permanence.”

It didn’t used to be this way.

A 2010 survey conducted by the National School Boards Association said that 87 percent of school board members spent less than $5,000 to win their races. Nationally, 44 percent described their most recent election as “very easy,” and just 5.8 percent said the race was “very difficult.”

Those were the days.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.