Opponents accuse candidate of trying to buy his way onto Denver’s school board

A Denver school board candidate has contributed more than $330,000 of his own money to his campaign, an unprecedented amount that is causing his opponents to balk.

While Denver school board races have been big-money affairs in recent years — with outside contributions from both union and education reform interests, in support of candidates — no candidate in recent history has put this much of their own money into a race.

Campaign finance reports show candidate Scott Baldermann has contributed $334,510 to his campaign, accounting for more than 95% of his fundraising.

One of his opponents, Radhika Nath, held a press conference Thursday to decry what she said was the possibility that school board seats would go to the highest bidder.

“If you’re pouring this kind of money into the race that you’re getting from corporate interests or your own funding, who are you serving?” Nath said. “It’s not the children. We need to be sure the people we’re electing are actually representing the community.”

Denver School Board candidate Radhika Nath, third from right, gathers with supporters in Civic Center Park. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

Baldermann is a Denver father running to represent southeast Denver on the school board. An Aurora high school graduate, Baldermann started a technology company that developed a web-based tool for the construction industry. He eventually sold the company and decided to stay at home with his children, becoming the PTA president at their school.

Baldermann was endorsed by the Denver teachers union, but the union’s small donor committee has not given him any money.

Nine candidates are running for three open seats on the Denver school board. The election is Nov. 5. Total spending in the election exceeds $1.3 million with three weeks still to go.

Baldermann faces two opponents who have not raised nearly as much money as he has. Reports show he raised about $351,000 as of Oct. 9, when the last filing period ended. Meanwhile, candidate Diana Romero Campbell raised about $93,000. That’s about one-quarter as much. Nath raised about $34,000, or about one-tenth of Baldermann’s total.

Neither Nath nor Romero Campbell has personally funded their campaigns in a major way. Romero Campbell gave $100 to her campaign, and loaned it another $3,500, according to campaign finance reports. Nath gave $2,256 to her own campaign.

Of the three candidates, Nath has the highest number of individual donors.

In addition to Romero Campbell’s own fundraising, independent expenditure committees have spent more than $95,000 in support of her, campaign finance reports show. A different independent expenditure committee has spent money in support of Baldermann.

Romero Campbell has said she doesn’t know anything about the outside money that committees are spending in support of her. Independent expenditure committees can spend unlimited money but are not allowed to coordinate with candidates.

On Thursday, Romero Campbell issued her own statement.

“I am disappointed that Scott Baldermann is attempting to buy himself a seat on the Denver school board,” she wrote. “I am also concerned that he is being supported by an independent expenditure [committee] that … just ran a racist mailer attacking my identity.”

She is referring to an attack ad sent by an independent expenditure committee funded by the Denver and Colorado teachers union. The ad refers to Romero Campbell as “Diana Campbell,” an omission she said erases her Latina identity. It urges voters to support Baldermann and the other union-backed candidates.

In a statement, Baldermann denounced the mailer.

“Diana is right to be offended by this bizarre and sloppy mail piece,” he wrote. “I do not need or want any independent expenditure committee spending money on my behalf.”

Baldermann denies that he’s trying to buy a seat on the school board. He said his decision to self-fund his campaign was born of a desire not to be beholden to the Denver teachers union or any other group that would contribute to his campaign.

Denver school board candidate Scott Baldermann (Courtesy)

Baldermann, who actively supported teachers during a strike earlier this year, said he was encouraged to run by the former president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Henry Roman. Baldermann pledged to drop out if he didn’t get the union’s endorsement.

“If Radhika had gotten that endorsement, I’d be knocking doors for her right now,” he said.

Baldermann and Nath are closely aligned on policy. Both are opposed to closing low-performing schools, and both believe the district should invest in traditional schools rather than open new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Baldermann also agrees with Nath that state lawmakers should limit contributions in school board races, especially since being a school board member is an unpaid position.

But Baldermann said that if he didn’t self-fund, both he and Nath would get beaten by candidates backed by deep-pocketed independent expenditure committees.

“If I don’t self-fund, then Radhika and I both lose,” he said.

Campaign finance reports show Baldermann has spent $264,435 on his campaign thus far — and Election Day is still three weeks away. His spending has already surpassed that of any individual candidate in the past 10 years. Baldermann has spent most of his money on advertising, and he has also paid for polling and canvassing.

In 2009, the candidate who spent the most money was Mary Seawell. She spent $229,908. Seawell won and went on to become board president.

In 2011, the candidate who spent the most money was Happy Haynes. She spent $232,167. Haynes won and went on to become board president.

In 2013, the candidate who spent the most money was Barbara O’Brien. She spent $197,186. O’Brien won and went on to become board vice president.

In 2015, the candidate who spent the most money was once again Haynes. She spent $122,464 on her re-election campaign. She is no longer board president.

In 2017, the candidate who spent the most money was O’Brien. She spent $115,654 on her re-election campaign. She is still board vice president.