(Re)Call Me Maybe

Recall effort in Jefferson County has raised $43,000

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County parents and recall organizers Loreli Bratton and Laura Center prepare recall petitions before a campaign event in Golden.

The organization behind the recall effort of three conservative school board members in Jefferson County has raised nearly half its fundraising goal in just two weeks, according to campaign finance documents.

Jeffco United for Action has raised — in mostly small and local donations — $43,981 of its $100,000 goal. The report, filed with the Secretary of State on Tuesday, signals that there is a committed grassroots effort to change the governing board of Jeffco Public Schools and that suggestions that the effort is entirely bankrolled by the teachers union are inaccurate.

A Chalkbeat analysis of the organizations first filing found that only $675 of the total raised came from outside the state. About one-fifth of the individuals who gave to recall effort listed Jeffco Public Schools as their employer. Slightly more than 90 precent of the 536 donations so far were for $100 or less. And the two largest donations were for $1,000.

One of the individuals who gave a grand to the recall group was former Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

“I’ve seen such demoralization in the district,” Stevenson said. “I consider it a service to the kiddos and staff of Jefferson County to change the governance structure.”

Stevenson served as the district’s superintendent for a dozen years. She announced her retirement shortly after the board majority, which ran on a platform to challenge the district’s status quo, was elected. She then left her post early citing a poor working relationship with the school board’s new members.

Data Center
Find out who gave in the first fundraising push to support the recall effort here.

During the reporting period, Jeffco United for Action spent $5,159. Most of the organization’s expenditures thus far have been on fees for its online fundraising site.

By comparison, the political committee that supported the school board majority, Believe in Better Schools, spent slightly more than $22,000 to get Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk elected in 2013, according to campaign finance reports.

Jeffco United for Action is a political 527 group. That means it can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money on the recall effort.

The same group of individuals has also established a nonprofit organization that can also raise an unlimited amount of money. But that money can only be used to “educate” the public about issues — not directly campaign. Unlike the 527 committee, the nonprofit is not required to disclose its donors.

So far, neither the nonprofit branch of the recall effort, which paid for a direct-mail campaign last month, nor the Jefferson County teachers union has made a contribution to the 527 group. That sort of funneling of cash between nonprofits with 501(c)(4) tax status and political committees has become the status quo in elections.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit behind the political committee that supported Witt, Williams, and Newkirk is also actively seeking donations to raise awareness about what they consider positive steps for the suburban school district under the board majority.

“I think it’s incredibly unfair that [Jeffco United] is doing this,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, in an interview earlier this month. “I want to be sure that the parents who voted for this board have a voice.”

Atwell said her organization is taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether to launch another political committee to directly support candidates this fall.

Backers of the recall, which kicked off with a campaign at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, have until Sept. 8 to collect 15,000 signatures per board member they wish to recall. Organizers want to be on the regular-November ballot and not force a costly special election are pushing to get enough signatures by the end of July. They believe if the recall effort can collect enough signatures by the end of the month, there is a strong likelihood that will happen. However, there is no guarantee the recall will be part of the general election.

Lights - camera - action

Relive the Jefferson County school board recall in 12 minutes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

What can a school board election tell us about American democracy?

Well, if that school board race happens to be in Jefferson County, involve the nation’s largest teachers union and one of the country’s most influential conservative nonprofit groups … quite a bit, actually.

At least that’s the premise of a new documentary short film, “Million-Dollar School Board” by independent filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler. 

The film chronicles the high-profile school board race — which included debates about how history should be taught and how teachers should get paid — that ended with three conservative members being ousted by a coalition of teachers, parents and community members. More than $1 million was poured into the campaign from all sides, hence the film’s title.

The Jeffco film is part of a nine-part series of short documentaries, “Postcards from The Great Divide,” released in a digital partnership between PBS’ Election 2016 initiative and The Washington Post, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Latino Public Broadcasting, with a PBS broadcast on the World Channel.

The goal is to answer this question:

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

You can view the roughly 12-minute film in its entirety here:

Then reread a sampling of our coverage:

 

full disclosure

Teachers unions gave huge sums of seed money to Jeffco recall, new records show

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Organizers of a school board recall effort in Jefferson County, from left, Michael Blanton, Wendy McCord, and Tina Gurdikian, spoke at the campaign kick off event in July.

National and local teachers unions provided more than $265,000 to a nonprofit group that served as a catalyst to recall three conservative school board members in Jefferson County.

That is according to campaign disclosures filed Thursday in response to a judge’s order that the group, Jeffco United, disclose its donors.

The organization, a social welfare nonprofit with tax-exempt status, was established in May and received its first donation — $25,000 — from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. In total, the CEA gave $113,500 to the group, records show.

The national union was even more generous. The National Education Association gave $150,000 to Jeffco United in late August.

Complete Colorado — an arm of the free-market think tank The Independence Institute, supported the recalled school board members — first reported the NEA contribution.

The disclosures shed significant new light on who bankrolled the high-profile recall, which opponents of the conservative board majority repeatedly described as a broad community-based effort. But the full picture of the financial forces on both sides of the campaign remains incomplete, because of lax state and federal reporting requirements.

Who gave to Jeffco United? |
• National Education Association, $150,000
• Colorado Education Association, $113,500
• Jefferson County Education Association, $20,000
• All other individuals, $3,115

“This is all we asked for,” said Dede Laugesen, director of Colorado Government Watch, the El Paso County-based organization that filed the complaint against Jeffco United. “It is only too bad voters did not have this information before the election.”

Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United, said it would be a mistake to say the recall was “union-led.”

“This was a parent-led and parent-organized recall,” Hansen said. “But parents can’t raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of out-of-state money that keeps coming into Colorado. This is the way the game is set up. We’re playing by the rules that we’re given.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffco United eventually launched two sister political committees to finance the recall and the election of a five-candidate slate. Most of that money — more than $200,000 — was raised locally.

Those committees raised and publically disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a large donation from Jeffco United early in the campaign.

An administrative court judge last week ruled that Jeffco United violated the state’s campaign finance laws. The judge found there was enough evidence to suggest that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to spearhead the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.

Typically, social welfare nonprofits — such as One Colorado, Progress Now and Americans For Prosperity — are allowed to raise money without disclosing their donors and then donate a portion to political committees, which are required to disclose donors to the secretary of state.

It’s common practice for advocacy organizations to operate multiple fundraising and spending apparatuses including 527s, independent expenditure committees and issue committees.

However, under Colorado law if an organization’s “major purpose” is to act only on a singular political issue, it must file as a political committee with the secretary of state and not as a nonprofit.

Judge Robert N. Spencer, in his decision, found Support Jeffco Kids — another group named in the original complaint — had an established track record of work on a variety of issues, therefore it did not violate the “major purpose” law.

Spencer’s decision only applies to Jeffco United.

Other nonprofits, including Colorado Independent Action, which acted similarly to Jeffco United, came to the aid of the recall targets. Independent Action, like Complete Colorado, is an arm of the Independence Institute, which does not disclose its donors.

Ousted board chairman Witt said the institute has a long track record for supporting politicians who champion for expanding school choice.

“I don’t think there was any surprise in those organizations being strong advocates for what we’re doing,” Witt said. He added, “I’m delighted that the truth has finally come out.”

The transparency watchdog organization Colorado Ethics Watch earlier this month called on lawmakers to revisit the state’s campaign finance laws that govern school board races.