Big bucks, new political group spice DPS race

1votecheckpencilA new name in Denver Public Schools’ politics continues to pump major dollars into the school board election for candidates seen as “pro-reform” while a new political group backed by unions is lending aid to their opponents.

Thomas W. Gamel, a Denver investor who has previously given heavily to projects such as Ocean Journey, has donated a combined total of $142,150 to three DPS candidates – Mary Seawell for the citywide at-large seat, Ismael Garcia in southwest Denver and Vernon Jones in northeast Denver.

Gamel’s associates at Timpte Industries and Rockmont Capital  have given the three candidates another $75,000 altogether. Gamel is founder and chairman of Rockmont, a private investment firm, and an owner of Timpte, a truck and trailer company which started in Denver in the 1880s.

Seawell has been the biggest beneficiary of Gamel’s interest in DPS, receiving $92,850 as of Oct. 25. She also has received $37,500 or $12,500 each from his associates, James Lakin, John Pfannenstein and Douglas Walliser.

“He has asked for nothing,” Seawell said of Gamel. “He asked me what I believe in, I told him and he wanted to support me and he wants to support DPS.”

527s in DPS race

While Gamel’s donations appear to put Seawell, Garcia and Jones ahead of their opponents in dollars raised, a political group called Coloradans for Accountable Reform in Education is working on behalf of at-large candidate Christopher Scott, Andrea Merida in southwest Denver and Nate Easley in northeast Denver.

Scott, Merida and Easley have been endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers’ union.

The group, which goes by CARE, is a 527 political organization that is receiving funding from the DCTA and the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, among other groups, according to CEA spokeswoman Deborah Fallin.

But, “It’s not our 527,” she said. “It doesn’t belong to us.”

Fallin declined to identify the principals behind the group, which can raise and spend unlimited sums so long as it doesn’t coordinate with candidates or specifically tell residents to vote for or against a candidate.

For example, in the race between Merida and Garcia, CARE has paid for three glossy mailings about Merida. One piece touts her service in the U.S. Army noting, “She fought for our country … and now she’s fighting for our kids.”

Another shows a picture of children boarding a school bus and asks, “Why can’t our kids walk to school? Because charter schools across town too often siphon tax dollars away from local neighborhood schools.”

“I don’t even know who they are,” Merida said when asked about CARE. “Obviously if it helps me, that’s great but I’ve been working very hard on this campaign for many months now.”

Unions have been top givers to Scott, Merida and Easley. The three have received a combined total of $46,750 from the CEA, the DCTA, the American Federation of Teachers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Colorado AFL-CIO.

Mystery behind CARE

CARE filed as a 527 with the Secretary of State’s Office on Oct. 9 and its first report on dollars raised and spent isn’t due until after Election Day. The only name listed on filing materials is Erica Hynek, a regional manager for a loan company, who could not be reached for comment.

Hynek is the sister of John Britz, half of the political consulting team of Welchert & Britz. Britz is a frequent consultant in DPS board elections and this season has worked on the campaign of incumbent board member Jeanne Kaplan, who is unopposed.

Kaplan is supporting Scott, Merida and Easley but said she has not given money to Britz on behalf of those candidates. Britz declined to comment.

Fallin, with the CEA, said she didn’t know who contacted the union about participating in CARE and she said the CEA’s political director “doesn’t talk about 527 work at all.”

Both Fallin and DCTA President Henry Roman declined to say how much money the unions are giving to CARE. Roman said “it is nowhere near” the money that Gamel has contributed to Seawell,  Garcia and Jones.

Like Merida, Easley, the union-backed candidate in northeast Denver, said he knew nothing about a 527 working on his behalf. And Nicolas Weiser, the communications director for Scott’s campaign, said he had never heard of the group until questioned by Ed News.

CARE may have paid for the red “Scott 4 Schools” stickers that adorned the top of Saturday’s editions of the Denver Post. An advertising rep for the  newspaper said the stickers typically cost about $62 per 1,000 newspapers. Weiser said Scott’s campaign did not pay for them.

Stand’s political work

Another political group active in the DPS campaign is Stand for Children, which is  both a parent-education group and a political-organizing committee.

Stand’s political arm filed for 527 status with the Internal Revenue Service in July. Stand state director Lindsay Neil said the federal filing is intended to provide the group with tax-exempt status for contributions to its political committee. The group has filed as a political committee, not a 527, with the state.

One key difference – while a 527 can accept donations from virtually anyone, Neil said Stand is accepting donations only from its members.

Stand has filed two reports with the state disclosing its activities on behalf of the candidates it endorsed – Seawell, Garcia and Jones.

Altogether, Stand’s political committee has raised $16,434.83 as of Oct. 25 and spent $14,436.35, with most of those dollars going to mailings on behalf of Garcia and Jones. The group does not give money directly to candidates.

527s may be best known for their role in federal elections – notoriously, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth efforts against John Kerry’s campaign for presidency in 2004 – but they are not new to Colorado state politics.

In 2006, an analysis by the Rocky Mountain News found 14 Democratic and Republican 527 groups raised more than $17 million for state campaigns and two congressional races that  year.

Gamel’s giving

Gamel, the new name in DPS politics,  is not a heavy donor to political causes in Colorado, according to records with the Secretary of State’s Office.

In the five years prior to the DPS board race, state records show a single $500 donation by Gamel to Republican Marc Holtzman’s exploratory committee for Colorado governor in September 2005. Gamel also gave $1,000 to Republican U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard in 1996 and $5,000 to Republican Bruce Benson’s gubernatorial campaign in 1994.

But Gamel’s name is not among the donors to the now-dissolved Trailhead Group, a Republican 527 that Benson helped found. Benson and Gamel formerly were board members – and Benson was CEO – of the oil and gas company United States Exploration Inc.

In addition, Benson, prior to becoming president of the University of Colorado, donated heavily to DPS school board races.

Gamel has said Benson had “absolutely no influence” on his giving in the DPS races. Last week, Gamel attended a fund-raiser for Democrats for Education Reform to hear a talk by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

“He’s just not a political person,” Seawell said. “It really is about the schools and believing in DPS for his own personal reasons.”

Gamel has been clipped in his comments to Ed News about his interest in DPS. Brief mentions in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News archives show the investor has contributed to causes such as the Denver Zoo and Denver’s Ocean Journey aquarium, to which he gave more than $1 million and served on its board of directors in the early 2000’s.

DPS appears to be a more recent interest. His mother attended Cole Middle School in northeast Denver and he has been active in supporting that school’s transformation to an innovation school, the Cole Arts & Science Academy. Seawell said he has pledged $500,000 per year to the school.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, championed reforms such as innovation schools, which give principals more freedom in hiring and firing staff, spending budget dollars and scheduling instructional time.

The Denver teachers’ union has been less enthusiastic about those reforms.

“He believes the direction of DPS is right and he wants people he feels are going to push it,” Seawell said of Gamel, “not try and stop everything.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.