Spending in Denver school board election tops $1.3 million, including on a mailer decried as racist

Campaign mailers spread out on a table.
Candidates and committees have spent more than $1.3 million in this year’s Denver school board election, including on mailers. (Will Gorski for Chalkbeat)

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With a little more than a week until Election Day, spending in the Denver school board race has surpassed $1.36 million, fueled largely by one group that has spent big, including on an attack ad that the targeted candidate decried as a racist dog whistle.

That group — Better Leaders, Stronger Schools — is an independent expenditure committee funded largely by Denver Families Action, which is the political arm of an organization called Denver Families for Public Schools. The organization was founded in 2021 with the backing of local charter school networks and its board is populated by charter leaders.

In Denver Public Schools politics, pro-charter organizations like Denver Families Action are on one side and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union is on the other. So far, the charter group is outspending the teachers union by about 4 to 1.

Pro-charter organizations are fighting to gain back a seat at the decision-making table. After years of a pro-charter majority on the Denver school board, the balance of power flipped in 2019. Today, all seven current members of the Denver school board were backed by the teachers union. With just three of the seven seats up for grabs Nov. 7, the election won’t change the majority. But it could change the board’s discussions.

Though Denver school board races have been million-dollar elections for several cycles, this year’s spending is notable. Pro-charter Better Leaders, Stronger Schools spent $250,000 on television ads featuring Denver Mayor Mike Johnston endorsing three candidates who were also endorsed by Denver Families Action: John Youngquist, Marlene De La Rosa, and Kimberlee Sia. It’s the first TV ad in memory for Denver school board candidates. 

The pro-charter committee has also sent several negative mailers, including one featuring a sad white child on one side and candidate Kwame Spearman, who is Black, on the other. 

In an interview, Spearman called the juxtaposition “dog whistling.”

Clarence Burton, CEO of Denver Families Action, did not respond to a request for comment.

One side of a mailer attacking candidate Kwame Spearman. (Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat)

Independent expenditure committees do the dirty work in political campaigns. They are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates, and they don’t have to disclose their donors, which is why they’re often referred to as “dark money” or “outside spending.”

The pro-charter spending seems more concentrated and strategic this year in that it’s being funneled through one committee rather than several as in years past. Better Leaders, Stronger Schools had spent a whopping $1 million total as of Oct. 25, according to campaign finance reports on file with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

The big spending started later than usual, likely because the Denver Classroom Teachers Association waited until early October to finalize its endorsements. The teachers union is backing candidates Spearman, Charmaine Lindsay, and Scott Baldermann. The union has its own independent expenditure committee called Students Deserve Better.

The negative mailer accuses Spearman, who’s running for an at-large seat on the board, of being a bully. Spearman is a DPS graduate and the son of an educator, and he co-owns the Tattered Cover bookstores. The mailer notes that Tattered Cover employees accused him of bullying while he was CEO. He has since stepped down from that role.

“To evoke and call me a bully, and on the other side [of the mailer] to have a white child, it’s very clear what they were trying to do,” Spearman said.

The mailer also brings up comments Spearman made about homelessness, crime, and immigration during his brief run for Denver mayor earlier this year. And it says he wrote “several sexist newspaper articles” when he was a college student. Spearman is 39 years old.

“It’s very obvious Denver Families has some kind of polling that indicates I’m doing very well,” Spearman said, “and instead of focusing on issues and what they want to do for the district, they’ve dug up stuff from my college days to put together this stew to show that I’m a bully. 

“It’s a turning point in this race.”

Spearman called on Johnston, who endorsed Spearman’s opponent, to denounce the mailer. 

“Mayor Johnston did not send the mailer,” spokesperson Jordan Fuja said in an email. “He endorsed candidates with strong educational experience who could bring change to the board.” 

Better Leaders, Stronger Schools has also sent negative mailers about Baldermann and Lindsay, the two incumbents in the race. Both Baldermann and Lindsay are white. The mailers targeting them mostly focus on their political records.

This is not the first time a Denver school board candidate has raised concerns about negative mailers being racist. In 2019, two Latina candidates decried a mailer sent out by the teachers union’s independent expenditure committee they said erased their identities by leaving off their Latino surnames. The union-funded committee apologized for the mailer.

In 2017, a union-funded committee sent a mailer featuring photos of former President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos alongside a photo of Angela Cobián, a Latina candidate who won her election. “I know what racism feels like, so this isn’t new,” Cobián told Chalkbeat at the time. “But I am deeply pained.”

Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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