Follow the money

Denver-based libertarian group adds $75,000 to fight Jefferson County school board recall

PHOTO: YouTube/IIonKBDI
Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, interviewed Jefferson County school board president and recall target Ken Witt, left, on his CPT12 television show "Devil's Advocate."

Big money continues to pour into the fight over who controls Jefferson County classrooms, new campaign finance records show.

Since the recall effort was launched in June, an estimated $1 million has been raised by groups on both sides of the fight.

The latest round of reports filed with the Secretary of State — which covers a small window of Oct. 16-22 — continues to show supporters of the recall have the edge in reported donations. But a new contribution to the committee opposing the recall has narrowed that gap slightly.

Colorado Independent Action, a nonprofit linked to the libertarian think tank The Independence Institute, contributed $75,000 to Kids Are First Jeffco, the political committee that opposes the recall of the three conservative school board members, in the latest filing period.

The donation from Independent Action to Kids Are First Jeffco was the single largest donation during the reporting period. Reports from campaigns and committees involved in the Jefferson County school board recall were due at midnight Tuesday.

Kids Are First Jeffco spent all $75,000 on advertising with a Denver-based company called Colorado Media Group, according to records.

Data Center | Track contributions to players in the Jefferson County school board recall election and see how much everyone has raised in spent since June here.

While donations to recall supporters slowed down during the latest reporting period, the groups still holds an edge in total reported contributions.

Jeffco United for Action, the organization that initiated the recall, reported raising $3,110 in the period. It spent $23,997, mostly on advertising.

Jeffco United Forward, the committee that is backing a slate of candidates to reset the entire board, raised $630 in non-itemized contributions. Tapping into money it had previously raised, it spent $9,980, mostly with the consulting firm Strategies 360.

Contributions to recall targets and the candidates seeking to replace them were more mixed.

Recall targets continued to raised little campaign funds on their own. Jeffco school board president Ken Witt raised $575. John Newkirk raised $1,345. Julie Williams didn’t report any new contributions.

By contrast, members of the so-called Clean Slate who are seeking to replace the conservative school board majority raised and spent impressive sums. Ron Mitchell raised $10,783. Brad Rupert recorded $14,198 in contributions. And Susan Harmon added $5,515 to her war chest.

Big contributors to their campaigns include the county’s teachers union’s small donor committee and a rancher from Boulder, John Powers, who has given generously to Democrats in the past, according to records.

The union’s small donor committee donated $9,000 to Rupert and $6,000 to Mitchell during the seven-day reporting period. During the same time, Powers donated $4,000 to Harmon and $3,500 to Mitchell.

The three candidates, who are also backed by recall supporters, continued to spend thousands of dollars on advertising with Mad Dog Mail, a Democratic marketing company in Florida.

Other candidates in the recall election raised considerably less money — if any.

Regan Benson raised $200, according to records. Neither Paula Noonan nor Matt Dhieux recorded any new contributions.

The final reporting deadline for committees in the recall election is Dec. 3.

Candidates and committees involved in the regular election that features two school board seats in the state’s second largest school district are due at midnight Friday.

The total amount spent on the recall will never be known because organizations like the Colorado Independent Action and Americans For Prosperity, which supports the school board majority’s policies, aren’t required to file with the secretary of state so long as they don’t expressly advocate for or against particular candidates.

Recall supporters have a nonprofit of their own that is not required to disclose its donors. That nonprofit, Jeffco United made an early donation of about $90,000 to the recall effort.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.