Tuesday’s election offers voters a chance to recalibrate Denver Public School’s board of directors — and moneyed interests are piling up donations to see the election go their way.
The election has been framed as a referendum on the accountability-based reform policies the district has implemented and that have been supported by a razor-thin 4-3 board majority. Observers believe the outcome of the four contested seats could either cement the board’s support for accountability and school choice with a supermajority; totally reverse course and shift toward more traditional policies of support for neighborhood schools and reduced emphasis on standardized tests; or continue the status quo of a deeply divided and, in some ways, intractable board.
But in part because of a perception among supporters of the district’s reforms that the future of their policies hinges on the outcome of the election, the story of the 2013 school board campaign has become one of a battle of big money pouring in to sway voters to their side.
“I think the groups backing reform see this as high stakes and have pulled out the big guns,” said University of Colorado School of Public Affairs Dean Paul Teske.
On one side, a small contingent of deep-pocketed donors, well-connected political operatives and sophisticated supporters have united to back four high-profile school board candidates whom they hope will sweep the table to reinforce and possibly speed the district’s commitment to school choice, teacher accountability and data-driven decision-making.
This network has created a sophisticated and well-funded electoral machine that is dwarfing their candidates’ rivals, who are banking on support primarily from their own smaller and less-organized coalition of the teachers union, community activists and small donors.
The slate that supports the current district administration, which is already backed by nearly $500,000 in combined campaign donations, includes former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien running at-large, former Denver Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez in west Denver’s District 2, lawyer Mike Johnson in central Denver’s District 3 and Urban League executive Landri Taylor in northeast Denver’s District 4.
Taylor is the only incumbent running for re-election. He was appointed to the board to fill a vacancy.
Candidates concerned about the district’s trajectory, and who are likely to reverse course if elected, are software company manager Michael Kiley in the at-large race, community organizer Rosario C. de Baca in District 2, activist and school volunteer Meg Schomp in District 3 and water engineer Roger Kilgore in District 4. Combined, these four candidates have raised a little more than $115,769.
A third at-large candidate, former DPS paraprofessional Joan Poston, doesn’t fall into either camp and, as of yet, is not accepting donations.
Reformers, with their own machine, outpace critics, union
Traditionally, liberal candidates for school boards across the country have been able to count on the support and infrastructure of teachers unions. But during the past decade, battles over school reform have re-shaped the political dynamics and created a clear ideological divide among candidates on the left between traditional progressives and those who support market-based educational policies.
Candidates who have backed the Denver reform movement during the last six years have began to aggressively build their own money machines to counteract the influence of the union. And an analysis of campaign filings and interviews with more than a dozen donors, activists and supporters suggest this pattern is solidifying and expanding.
“The people who have been concerned about the role of unions in elections have caught up,” Teske said.
While the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund has still posted the largest single contributions to date, donating $15,000 to each of the skeptics of accountability-based reform, the reform slate is outpacing the critics nearly three to one in both small and large gifts.
So far, a little more than half of all monetary contributions to either slate of candidates has come from just a handful of individuals and organizations. But the patterns and volume of giving — and how that money has been spent — are as staunchly different as the slates themselves.
High dollar bloc donations to candidates who support reform include $12,000 from Denver real estate broker John Freyer, who gave $3,000 to each of the four candidates, and another $12,500 from Boston hedge fund executive Charles Ledley. Ledley gave $4,000 to Johnson and O’Brien, $2,500 to Taylor and $2,000 to Rodriguez.
In total, 50 individuals or organizations gave to three or more reform candidates, with an average donation of $5,215 and individual amounts ranging from $75 to $10,000.
In contrast, 10 individuals and organizations gave an average of $6,058 to three or more of the candidates who generally disagree with the reform policies in amounts ranging from $50 to $15,000.
The average for this group of candidates is greater due to the weight of donations from the DCTA Fund. The next single largest donation was $250, given to Schomp from Laura Lefkowits. Lefkowits gave the slate of critics $500 in total.
Stripping away the large and coordinated gifts to both slates reveals a similar pattern — pro-reform candidates are out-fundraising their critics by, on average , a rate of four to one.
Total giving from about 1,000 small and uncoordinated donors for pro-reform candidates exceeds $200,000, while the administration’s critics mustered a little more than $55,000 from 438 donors. The average unbundled donation to an individual candidate of reform stock is $203. The average unbundled donation to an individual candidate proposing a new course for DPS is $126.
A candidate by any other name
The contrast in giving can be attributed to two major factors: the reform candidates bring with them high name recognition, and have benefited from a coordination of consultants and technology that has redefined how politicians raise money.
All four pro-reform candidates retained political consultant Craig Hughes, whose wife, Sarah Kendall Hughes is a top lieutenant to former DPS Superintendent and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Additionally, both Taylor and Rodriguez sought counsel from Denver-based Derrington Consulting, while Johnson and O’Brien received voter contact assistance from Washington-based firm NPG Van.
O’Brien, Taylor, Rodriguez and Johnson had the same Web and social media firm, 4Degrees, develop their individual websites. The campaigns all utilized Democracy Engine, a Web software to develop and engage donors. And Paychex, a payroll processing company, is the pro-reform choice for human resources.
A tale of two grandparents
One of the largest contributors to the pro-reform slate is University of Colorado President Bruce Benson. So far, he’s given $33,000 to the four candidates.
Benson, a Republican who has a long history working alongside Democrats on education issues, has four grandchildren in DPS and he believes the changes made in the district by Bennet and current Superintendent Tom Boasberg are working.
“The system means a lot to me,” he said. “I want a good school system, and we continue to make headway. … I support Tom Boasberg and we need to keep him.”
As reform goes, Boasberg has become a polarizing symbol for the argument for and against. Reform detractors claim the Boasberg’s leadership has gone unchecked by the current board.
Another grandparent to DPS students, Judy Wolfe, who donated $25 to Kilgore and who plans to donate more to his campaign and the rest of the slate as the election winds down, said she hopes her new board members will hold the district accountable.
“I hope Roger challenges (Boasberg),” she said at an Oct. 30 fundraiser for the candidate. “I’m not nuts about they way things are going. I feel a lot of our (good) schools are only for families who have a lot of extra time to send their kids across town. Every neighborhood should have a school parents want to send their child to.”