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 or 303-478-4573.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.