mail call

Denver school board election mailer’s false statement about ‘for-profit charter school’ draws criticism

The flier under fire.

School board elections, like all elections, brim with harsh accusations, cherry-picked data and political posturing.

An election mailer from an independent committee trying to influence the outcome of a hard-fought race in northeast Denver goes a step further, falsely stating that the school district is “ceding space to a for-profit charter school” on one of its campuses.

In December, the school board unanimously voted to locate DSST: Conservatory Green High School — run by a charter network registered as a nonprofit — in a separate building from existing district-run Northfield High School on the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver.

In Colorado, charter schools are required to be run by nonprofit boards. Charter school boards are permitted to contract operations and management to for-profit companies, often known as education-management organizations or EMOs, but that is rare in Colorado. DSST operates its own schools.

The mailer was paid for by Brighter Futures for Denver Students, an independent expenditure committee that is supporting the candidacy of Jennifer Bacon, who has worked as a teacher, administrator and lawyer. As of the last reporting deadline, the group had brought in $139,000 from the Denver teachers union and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

The Denver teachers union has endorsed Bacon in the three-candidate race that is the most watched among the four DPS board seats in play.

Chalkbeat school board election mail tracker
Get something in your mailbox about a school board election that deserves more scrutiny? Email pictures — and any other election coverage tips — to [email protected].

With ballots mailed and Election Day on Nov. 7 drawing nearer, Denver mailboxes are filling with literature produced both by candidates’ campaigns and independent committees seeking to grab voters’ attention in what are are traditionally low-turnout off-year elections. Union-backed committees are supporting critics of the district’s direction, while committees affiliated with groups such as Democrats for Education Reform are pouring money into maintaining a 7-0 majority in favor of DPS reforms.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of DSST, which operates some of the city’s highest-performing schools, criticized the mailer’s language about a “for-profit charter school” in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“As adults in this country, we have an obligation to model integrity, and to model truthful discourse,” Kurtz said. “It’s disturbing that the adults in Denver are modeling for our young people in a school board race factually untrue, categorically untrue statements in the name of trying to elect adults in the city to lead our school system.”

The registered agent for Brighter Futures for Denver Students is lawyer Scott Martinez, a former Denver city attorney. He did not respond to two requests for comment this week. The president of the Denver teachers union, Henry Roman, declined to answer questions about the mailer, saying in an email that he is “not involved in the Independent Expenditure side.”

Independent expenditure committees have grown in prominence in Denver school board elections in recent years. Such committees have to report their contributors and what they spend; they are barred from coordinating efforts with candidates and their personal committees.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Bacon distanced herself from the direct mail piece. “With campaign finance rules the way they are, my campaign has no control over the communications of outside groups,” said Bacon, who once worked for DSST. “I’d like to see the conversation stay focused on the issues that matter to families, teachers, and community members.”

Bacon is trying to unseat incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to her seat in 2016. Tay Anderson, a 19-year-old recent Manual High School graduate, is also vying for the seat.

To learn more about the candidates and their positions, read Chalkbeat’s profile of the race and replies to our DPS candidate questionnaires.

Here’s the mailer from the District 4 race:

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.