Who Is In Charge

Campaign bill gets its hearing

A House committee spent more than an hour Thursday on a bill that proposes to limit campaign contributions in school board races, but a vote was put off because the chairman had lost two of five Republican members, leaving Democrats with a temporary majority.

Arturo Jimenez and Beth McCann
Denver school board member Arturo Jimenez (left) and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver
The House State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee now has the bill on its calendar for Jan. 26. After Thursday’s session Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver and prime sponsor of House Bill 12-1067, said she expects to have a hard time getting the measure out of committee. She lost a similar bill on the House floor last year.

There currently are no limits on contributions to school board and Regional Transportation District candidates, and HB 12-1067 would set $500 contribution limits for individuals and political action committees and a $5,000 limit for small-donor committees. (The difference in amount parallels limits for contributions to legislative candidates.)

“It’s a matter of leveling the playing field for these candidates,” McCann told the committee. “The potential for abuse and improper influence is great when there are no limits.”

McCann then rattled off the names of some of bigger contributors in last year’s Denver Public Schools board races, which set a record for fundraising (see story).

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“This isn’t just a Denver problem,” McCann argued, noting large contributions in some Douglas and Jefferson county board races. “I believe this will be spreading across the state.”

Two Denver board members, Arturo Jimenez and Jeanne Kaplan, testified in favor of the bill. Jimenez, who won a narrow victory against well-funded opponent Jennifer Draper Carson, said average parents “don’t want to run because they see the outrageous amounts of money” being spent.

Kaplan said, “What we saw happen in these elections was pretty distasteful.” Kaplan and Jimenez opposed the “reform” slate of candidates that raised the large war chests last year.

Only one witness, Rick Coolidge of the Department of State, testified against the bill. He expressed concern that the bill’s proposed changes in reporting deadlines would further complicate the state’s already confusing deadlines for different kinds of offices and campaign committees.

State Affairs Republicans seemed skeptical of the bill.

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, repeatedly said he thinks setting limits would just push campaign contributions into 527 and independent expenditure committees, where it’s harder to trace.

Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, suggested to Jimenez that his victory proved that campaign spending isn’t decisive in a race.

Some Republicans also were unhappy with the higher limit for small-donor committees, a favorite tool of teachers unions, and a variety of other political groups.

After testimony ended, Chair Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, abruptly closed the hearing, saying he wanted to take the vote when all panel members were present. Two Republicans had left the meeting, leaving four Democrats and three Republicans in the room.

Nibbling around the future of BEST

A discussion in the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon may have provided a preview of later debates this year over the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program.

The subject came up during a briefing by Bill Ryan, director of the State Land Board, which manages 2.8 million acres of state lands that yield some $65 million a year in revenue. Nearly all of that goes to either the BEST program or to supplement state funding of school district operations.

One of the things Ryan stressed was that annual revenues can fluctuate – he called last year’s $120 million an aberration because of energy leasing in northeastern Colorado – and that mineral and energy revenues “depend on the sale of a depleting asset.”

By law BEST receives half the annual revenues from leases, rents and royalties on state lands. The program has about $29 million a year in payments on the lease-purchase agreements used to build and renovate schools. There’s a ceiling on $40 million on the amount BEST can obligate.

Those numbers have some legislators worried that a bad year for land revenues might force lawmakers to come up with other money to meet BEST obligations. There’s talk of legislation to scale back BEST.

“The BEST program is a wonderful program, but there are some consequences … if the land board was unable to pay the debt service,” Ryan said.

Some lawmakers also are concerned that the land board’s permanent fund has been flat at $600 million because revenues have been diverted to BEST and school spending. (Once revenues go into the permanent fund they can’t be spent; only interest generated by the fund can be used.)

“This is part of the choice that we are making,” said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of Senate Education. “If we had our druthers we might like to augment this [the permanent fund] for the future. … We have not done that, for various reasons.” Bacon’s “various reasons” primarily are the state’s recent tight revenues, which have led lawmakers to tap whatever money they could to reduce the size of school budget cuts.

Latest new bills

Three bills of possible interest were introduced Thursday. Two, Senate bills 12-082 and 12-084, relate to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The first one proposes to raise retirement ages for future PERA employees to match those of the Social Security system. PERA members generally can retire much earlier now, based on years of service, age and other factors. Both measures are sponsored by conservative Republicans and likely have no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Senate Bill 12-079 is a technical measure involving the Safe2tell school safety program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.