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Nonprofit that gave big to successful Jeffco school board recall effort broke state law, judge finds

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

A nonprofit that launched in May broke state law when it made a large donation to the successful recall effort of three Jefferson County school board members and did not disclose its donors, a Colorado administrative judge decided Thursday.

As part of the decision, the nonprofit Jeffco United was fined $1,000 and ordered to register with the secretary of state as a political committee and disclose its donors within 10 days.

Under the administrative judge’s ruling, it’s unclear whether Jeffco United would be required to disclose its past donors or only those in future election cycles. The group could appeal the decision.

“Our legal team has the decision and is reviewing it,” said Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United. She declined to comment further.

Nonprofits that are involved in political activities such as Jeffco United typically are not required to disclose donors.

However, Administrative Court Judge Robert N. Spencer said he found enough evidence to conclude that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to support the recall.

An El Paso County-based watchdog group Colorado Government Watch filed the complaints against Jeffco United and another nonprofit that supported the recall, Support Jeffco Kids. Spencer’s decision only applies to the pro-recall force Jeffco United.

In his decision, Spencer found Support Jeffco Kids did not violate state law because of the group’s work on other campaign issues and education work.

In July, Jeffco United donated $90,000 to a related political committee, which is required to disclose its donors, known as Jeffco United for Action. A third branch of the recall effort, Jeffco United Forward, also was created to support a slate of five candidates to reconfigure the entire school board of the state’s second largest school district.

“The disclosure by [Jeffco United For Action] that United was one of its major contributors provided little information to the electorate about who was actually funding the recall and defeated the transparency that is a primary goal of the fair campaign practice laws,” Spencer wrote in his decision.

Another group with the same tax-exempt status as Jeffco United operated similarly, but was not part of the complaint. Colorado Independent Action, run by the Independence institute, was created in January and its only donations were to the political committee Kids First Jeffco, which opposed the recall.

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.

Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said Spencer’s decision was a cautionary tale for future political committees.

“The groups that form just ahead of an election are going to have to be cautious about their formation and whether or not they’re going to meet the major purpose question,” she said. “… You can’t set up an organization solely to hide your donors.”

Judge Robert N. Spencer’s decision

Correction: An earlier version of this article labeled the organization Colorado Government Watch as having a conservative leaning. This is not the case, the director of the organization says.  

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How Jeffco’s pick for superintendent changed his mind about education reform

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School last week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Jason Glass was recruited to oversee more than 300 Iowa school districts as the state’s director of education, he was known for his work in Colorado’s Eagle County tying teacher pay to student performance.

The Republican governor who appointed Glass in Iowa called him a “reform-minded leader” and put him to work to explore similar models for Iowa’s teachers.

Over time, both while in Iowa and after returning to serve as superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Glass changed some of his thoughts on education reform. He said it happened while he was looking at education systems around the world and found that many of the popular reforms in the U.S. “were not a strong ingredient” in other systems around the world. Addressing student needs was, he said.

“Unless you’re doing something to impact poverty, you’re really not changing outcomes,” Glass said. “It changed my focus.”

Glass’s views are front and center as he is set to take on a more prominent role as the next superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district. Pending contract negotiations and a final vote Tuesday night, he will begin the role July 1.

Glass was the sole finalist of a school board that won election with support from a coalition that included well-connected parents and the teachers union.

In Eagle County, Glass is admired by the local union. He said he no longer believes in performance pay for teachers, but advocates for other ways to pay teachers other than under traditional models. He’s been critical of testing in Colorado. He believes charter schools should meet high bars, including showing quality in instruction.

“I’m most interested in getting something done,” Glass said. “That can take on different forms.”

Jeffco board members who picked Glass as sole finalist for the job praised his ability to work with different people, his work on rolling out a biliteracy seal in his district to encourage bilingual students and for “doing his homework” on Jeffco’s master plan.

The Jeffco board launched a national search earlier this spring to find a new leader.

The last superintendent, Dan McMinimee, was hired by a previous school board in a majority decision by three conservative board members who were later recalled. Three of the five current school board members are up for re-election this November.

“I really admire this board,” Glass said. “It took a lot of courage for them to run.”

Even before officially starting, Glass has been meeting groups of staff and visiting schools. On Thursday, he visited Arvada High School, where two students gave him a tour of the school and told him about the programs they say make their school great.

Glass was quiet, mostly listening to the students and asking occasional questions.

He said he won’t start work in Jeffco with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

He said he will consider whether Jeffco could offer a biliteracy seal — a credential given to graduating students who meet requirements to prove they are fluent in two languages.

Talking about his views on budget issues facing most Colorado districts, Glass said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs — services that cash-strapped districts often have to cut.

Glass said it is clear the district needs someone to unite the community.

“It’s a place that needs a strong leader, a relationship-builder,” Glass said. “Those are skill sets that I have and areas that I’ve been successful in.”

His job application highlighted that voters in Eagle County in November approved a tax increase for the district. Jeffco failed to pass two tax increase measures in November.

Charlie Edwards, the president of the Iowa State Board of Education, agrees that Glass has learned to work well with various groups.

Edwards said that when Glass started in Iowa and was working to create a statewide model of teacher pay and to create new academic standards, the hundreds of school districts used to having local control were skeptical.

“There was initially quite a bit of resistance,” Edwards said. “He worked through a lot of it. It was not an easy sell.”

Now people describe Glass as a supporter of teachers.

When he returned to Colorado after working in Iowa, Glass negotiated a contract with the school district that tied his own pay raises to teacher pay raises. It was something important to the community at the time, Glass said, because they worried about a previous leader that took pay raises while teacher salaries lagged.

Glass also rolled back the performance-pay model that he helped create as the district’s director of human resources. Now, teacher pay is more traditional but with some added performance bonuses.

“He is very supportive of what we do,” said Megan Orvis, president of the Eagle County Education Association.

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: