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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.

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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:

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.

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.