Advocacy group poured nearly $100,000 into Newark school board race

The winning candidates in Newark’s recent school board race got a nearly $100,000 boost from a group backed by charter school advocates, according to new campaign filings.

The group, called Great Schools for All PAC, spent more than $97,000 supporting the team of three politician-endorsed candidates who swept last month’s election, the filings show. By far the biggest spender in the race, the group netted most of its money from donors based outside Newark.

Great Schools for All has extensive ties to charter school supporters. Its chairman is a former official at KIPP New Jersey, an affiliate of the national KIPP charter school network. And its donors include a group seeking to spread charter schools across the country and Doris Fisher, the Gap Inc. co-founder who is a longtime KIPP donor and board member.

As an “independent expenditure” group, Great Schools for All could raise and spend unlimited amounts in the election but not coordinate with its chosen candidates — Shayvonne Anderson, A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, and Tave Padilla.

Those candidates, whose team was called Moving Newark Schools Forward, raised their own money separately from the independent group. The team spent about $27,000 of the money it raised through its campaign committee, according to filings. The committee reported its spending Thursday night — three days after the May 6 deadline, which could subject it to a fine.

The team was backed by Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, and charter school advocates. Each of the elected officials gave money to the team through their own campaign committees, according to the filings. Great Schools for All Inc., which has the same address as Great Schools for All PAC, gave $7,800 — the team’s largest donation.

The money spent to elect the winning candidates, who were sworn in to the board last month, dwarfed the amount spent by their opponents. A rival three-person team called Children Over Politics reported spending just over $9,000 during the race; the remaining five candidates did not report any spending.

This is the second year that Great Schools for All backed the politicians’ chosen team. Last year, the group spent $147,000 supporting the slate — helping it crush its 10 opponents in the board race, who reported no spending.

The chairman of Great Schools for All is Kyle Rosenkrans, a former fundraiser and director of strategic initiatives for KIPP New Jersey who just launched a nonprofit dedicated to bridging the divide between Newark’s traditional and charter schools.

In an interview last month, Rosenkrans told Chalkbeat that he raised money for this year’s school board race on a volunteer basis apart from his work at the nonprofit, called the New Jersey Children’s Foundation. But his motivation for joining both causes is the same, Rosenkrans said: to promote unity among once-rival political camps and among supporters of traditional and charter schools, who have clashed bitterly in the past.

“That unity, I think, creates a special moment for the city,” Rosenkrans said. “And that’s personally inspiring to me, having seen the opposite for too long.”

But critics, who say the outside money allows national funders to shape Newark’s school board while drowning out the voices of independent candidates, are not persuaded. They say that charter-school boosters exacerbate divisions, rather than ease them, by funneling cash into the board election.

“They can stop funding political candidates and their slate” if they want to foster unity, said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and an outspoken charter school critic. “They can stop pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into local school board campaigns and allow it to be a true democratic election.”

Moving Newark Schools Forward paid local Democratic and Republican organizations for campaign services, along with local workers, according to filings. Its largest payment was $13,000 to Bottom Up Consulting, a political strategy firm founded by Amiri Baraka Jr., the mayor’s brother and chief of staff.

Great Schools for All used its war chest to pay groups in California, New York, Texas, and Washington, D.C., to produce campaign ads and call and text voters, campaign filings show. It also hired Newark-based campaign workers.

Great Schools for All raised $107,600 for this year’s race. Its largest contribution was $60,000 from a group called Public School Allies. That group is the political arm of The City Fund, a new national organization looking to push cities to expand charter schools and give district-run schools more autonomy. The City Fund is also bankrolling Rosenkrans’ new nonprofit.

Better Education for New Jersey Kids Inc., an education advocacy group whose co-founder is a KIPP New Jersey board member, gave $15,000. Doris Fisher of the Gap chipped in $5,000.

The state legislature this year passed a bill that would shine a light on so-called dark money groups, nonprofits that seek to influence elections or policy but are not subject to the same financial disclosure rules as traditional political groups. Gov. Phil Murphy must still sign the bill, which would would force independent spending groups like Great Schools for All to reveal their top donors.

In its filings, Great Schools for All PAC voluntarily disclosed its donors. However, the group also reported receiving $27,500 from Great Schools for All Inc., whose funders remain a mystery.

Last year, New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission found that independent spending had become the “preferred weapon” that special-interest groups wield to sway elections, rather than direct contributions to candidates — a trend that held in Newark’s school board race this year.

Joseph Donohue, the commission’s deputy director, told Chalkbeat that Newark’s election is just one more example of why the state should require greater transparency from outside spending groups.

“These groups can have a big impact on elections,” he said. “So we want to know where their money’s coming from.”