Final tally

Libertarian think tank leads donations in Jefferson County school board recall, election

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Soon-to-be-former Jeffco school board president Kent Witt

A nonprofit tied to the Denver-based libertarian think tank the Independence Institute poured $85,000 into trying to stave off the recall of three conservative Jefferson County school board members in the waning days of the high-profile campaign, new records show.

Colorado Independent Action’s donations on Oct. 23 and 28 nearly doubled the war chest of Kids Are First Jeffco, a political committee that led the unsuccessful charge to save the incumbents.

Colorado Independent Action was the single largest contributor in the combined recall and regular election for two open seats, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of all reported contributions since the recall was launched in June.

It gave a combined total of $170,000. That’s nearly $2 for every $8 raised among 17 different political committees and candidates.

The total raised by all committees and candidates between the recall and regular election for two open seats is more than $824,000.

Thursday’s filing deadline, which covers donations and expenses by candidates and committees from Oct. 26 through Nov. 28, brings the money interests for and against the school board recall into sharper focus.

Follow the money | Track donations to candidates and committees in the Jefferson County school board recall here. And track donations to the candidates for the two open seats here.

However, because of lax reporting requirements at the state and federal level, it will likely never be known how much money was spent — and where that money came from — on the election and recall that ultimately reset the governing board of the state’s second largest school district.

Other findings from the reported contributions include:

  • The Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union, donated a total of $93,000 to support the “Clean Slate” of candidates who won. That’s about 15 percent of the total money raised on the pro-recall side.
  • By comparison, The Independence Institute and Jeffco Students First Action donated a combined 87 percent of money to oppose the recall and elect two other board members for open seats.
  • At least 69 individuals, a fraction of the thousands who donated to efforts to flip the school board, made contributions to all five candidates who won. Those 69 people gave an average of $528 to the candidates.
  • The organization Jeffco United Forward, which supported the five-member slate, raised $34,034. Nearly half was raised in $10 increments in exchange for yard signs.
  • The five candidates who won office raised on average $58,758 each.
  • The candidates and incumbents that lost raised $4,310 each on average.

Most candidates and committees raised little during the last period. Most spent their remaining balance on final campaign bills and robocalls to voters.

Kids Are First Jeffco paid more than $10,000 to consultants, including $5,000 to former Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams.

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.