A political committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform has spent nearly $126,866 in two State Board of Education races, and the group’s state director indicates more such spending is planned.
That amount is more than five times the combined $22,560 spent as of Oct. 8 by Democratic candidates Henry Roman and Jane Goff from their own campaign treasuries.
Roman, running in the 3rd District and Goff, the 7th District incumbent, also have received smaller but still substantial direct contributions from committees affiliated with the Colorado Education Association.
Jen Walmer, Colorado director of DFER and the registered agent for Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with DFER, said the contributions are motivated by concern about the increasing politicization of education boards by Republicans, such as has happened in Jefferson County.
“We have seen the importance of board of education races,” she said.
Walmer said the spending has “less to do” with any effort to help Democrats gain a majority on the seven-member board, which currently has a 4-3 Republican majority.
Kerrie Dallman, president of CEA, said the union’s interest is less with the political composition of the board than it is with candidates whose views match CEA priorities.
Other education sources tell Chalkbeat Colorado they believe the financial support is partly motivated by worry that continued Republican SBE control after the election could lead to GOP efforts to pull Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests and possibly to replace education commissioner Robert Hammond.
“It’s because of Common Core and assessments,” said one source. “The board has made a lot of noise about getting out of PARCC.”
The spending indicates a level of intensity seldom seen in State Board races, which typically are low-profile affairs.
Here’s a look at the details of this year’s spending and the politics behind it.
The Raising Colorado independent expenditure committee on Sept. 25 spent $70,500 in support of Roman. On Oct. 7 the committee spent $56,366 in support of Goff.
Walmer said the Roman spending was for radio ads and the Goff spending for direct mail. The media pieces were produced by out-of-state firms.
Roman’s own committee has raised $17,374 and spent $6,370. Goff has raised $31,010 and spent $16,190.
Some 52 percent of Roman’s contributions have come from teachers unions, while Goff has received 29 percent of her funding from such sources.
The Public Education Committee, a small donor group affiliated with CEA, has given $4,500 each to Roman and Goff. The Pueblo Education Association small donor committee also has given $4,500 to Roman, and the Jefferson County Education Association small donor committee has given the same amount to Goff.
Small donor committees, which are funded by member donations or dues deductions, can give a maximum of $4,500 to a candidate each election cycle. There’s no limit on spending by independent expenditure committees, but they can’t coordinate their spending with candidate campaign committees.
Republican board candidates have lagged behind in campaign fundraising. Marcia Neal, the 3rd District incumbent, has raised $12,895 and spent $10,881. (Neal had a primary opponent and spent $4,006 in that election.) Laura Boggs, GOP candidate in the 7th, has raised $4,312 and spent $1,220.
Raising Colorado has made two other interesting spending moves.
The committee made expenditures of $9,700 each against Republican state Senate candidates Laura Woods and Tony Sanchez. The two are challenging, respectively, Democratic Sens. Rachel Zenzinger and Andy Kerr of Jefferson County. Both Democrats have received direct contributions from unions and from DFER-related committees.
Asked how much additional spending Raising Colorado plans, Walmer said there will be more in board and legislative races but doesn’t yet know how much. That next reporting deadline for candidates and committees is Oct. 27, eight days before the election.
All the dollar figures listed above were from Oct. 14 reports, which covered activity through Oct. 8.
3rd District race
Neal has represented the sprawling district, which covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo, for the last six years. She’s a retired teacher and former Mesa 51 school board member.
The last three SBE members from the District have been Republicans, including Neal. Republicans are 35 percent of the district’s registered voters, compared to 34 percent unaffiliated or minor party and 29 percent Democrats.
But Neal won her first election in 2008 by only about 3,000 votes out of 300,000 cast. In 2002 Republican Pam Suckla won by about 3,000 votes out of some 205,000 cast.
And Neal’s hometown newspaper, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, has endorsed Roman, an education consultant and former superintendent of the Pueblo 60 district. (The Sentinel endorsed Neal six years ago.) The district’s other two largest papers, the Pueblo Chieftain and the Durango Herald, also have endorsed Roman.
Neal said she’s “disappointed” with the Raising Colorado spending and was “very surprised” at the Sentinel endorsement.
Walmer said her group is supporting Roman partly because it believes Neal has become more partisan. “It’s not the same Marcia Neal who ran in 2008,” she said. She also said Raising Colorado felt Roman needed help reaching voters in such a large district.
Neal has the same complaint, pointed in the opposite direction. “I haven’t run up against this kind of partisanship before.”
“In general I’m not discouraged, but I’m concerned that this negative advertising is out there,” she said. Neal won the June primary against a more conservative Republican opponent who also outspent her.
Roman said he was happy the Raising Colorado radio ad he heard and the mailer he saw praised him but that did feel a little ambivalent about something over which “I have no say.”
He added, “We were going to do some radio ads, but we don’t feel now we need to duplicate that effort.”
He said the ads and mailer criticize Neal for her stand on the controversial AP U.S. history course.
Roman also said he hopes the Sentinel’s endorsement will persuade some Grand Valley Republican voters to consider him. “It’s certainly not going to hurt me.”
7th District race
Although 7th District Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter is expected to win easy re-election, parts of the district, especially Jefferson County, are ground zero in tough partisan battles over legislative seats and other offices.
Jeffco, of course, also has been roiled by controversies over actions by the school board’s new conservative majority. (Walmer weighed in on those in a Sept. 25 posting on DFER’s website, call the board majority “these extremists.” Read the full post here.)
Based on voter registration, the district is 37.5 percent unaffiliated and other, 33.7 percent Democratic and 27.5 percent Republican. (A substantial part of Adams County also is in the district.)
Goff, a former teacher, administrator and union officer, is considered to be leading in her bid for reelection.
Walmer acknowledged Goff’s funding edge but said Raising Colorado got involved in helping her “partly because it’s noisy” in the district with all the other races and the schools controversy.
Boggs, a conservative former Jeffco board member, said, “Coloradans are getting used to groups from New York and D.C. trying to influence our elections. Clearly there is a fight for control of public education, and voters in CD 7 have a chance to vote for the local control, student-focused voice I will bring to the State Board or for a continuation of the over-testing, one-size-fits-all education system which is not focused on our students.”
Asked about the Raising Colorado effort, Goff said, “I had not idea about that going on. … Wow. That’s quite a bit of money.”
As the whether the outside spending will help her campaign, Goff said, “I’m ambivalent.”
DFER & CEA
To some people the idea of CEA-DFER political cooperation may seem odd, given the organizations’ policy differences on issues like teacher evaluation.
Walmer and Dallman acknowledge the differences but don’t see cooperation as strange.
The CEA itself gave $5,000 directly to Raising Colorado on Oct. 3. The bulk of Raising Colorado’s funding has come from another DFER-related committee, Education Reform Now Advocacy.
“I don’t think it’s unusual to be aligned in some areas with the CEA,” said Walmer.
Dallman said that both groups feel the same way about Roman and Goff as the candidates with the best interests of public education at heart.
Walmer is a former top aide to both DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former Democratic Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll. CEA is traditionally a significant contributor to Democratic candidates at all levels.
State Board background
The board takes scores of votes every year, most of them on regulatory and oversight issues, and most of those votes are 7-0.
But there is a clear ideological divide on the board over major issues like PARCC testing, Common Core and the proper state and federal role in schools.
A conservative Republican bloc – chair Paul Lundeen of the 5th District, Pam Mazanec (4th) and Debra Scheffel (6th) are critical of Common Core, supportive of more district autonomy and critical of “reform” in general. Democrats Elaine Gantz Berman (1st) Angelika Schroeder (2nd) and Goff have different views.
Neal has been something of bridge between the two groups, depending on the issue.
Lundeen has tried to steer board attention to some more-contentious issues in recent months, but so far that’s mostly ended up in discussions, not votes.
See these Chalkbeat stories for background on the board and some hot-button issues:
- State Board gets taste of Jeffco controversy
- With debate, State Board lays U.S. history flap to rest
- TCAP results prompt State Board to take familiar ideological sides
- Another skirmish shaping up in testing wars
- State Board asks legislature to exit testing group
- State Board splits over testing and standards delay
Two other seats on the seven-member board will have new occupants after the Nov. 4 election.
In District 1 Democrat Valentina Flores is running unopposed. She won an upset victory in the June 24 primary over reform-backed candidate Taggart Hanson. Two independent expenditure committees connected to Stand for Children and DFER spent a total of $107,078 supporting Hansen.
Lundeen is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. His successor on the board will be appointed by a Republican Party vacancy committee.
So Roman and Goff victories would give Democrats a 4-3 board majority.