Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and an affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Unions often collect political voluntary political donations from teachers.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy— a national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. The group is registered under a section of the tax code that does not require it to disclose its donors.

That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County. This story has also been updated to correct that teachers unions use voluntary donations for political purposes, not dues. 

Colorado Votes 2017

How Colorado’s teachers unions claimed school board victories Tuesday

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Building on recent successes, Colorado’s teachers unions sharpened their political operation and took advantage of an unsettled national electoral climate to score victories this week in some of the state’s largest school districts.

Slates of school board candidates backed by teachers unions won majorities in Aurora, Douglas and Jefferson counties. And in Denver — where the union has been unable to stop or slow the school district’s reform strategies — two candidates supported by the union won seats on the city’s seven-member board.

The political and education policy circumstances differ in each of the four school districts — the dynamics look much different in Denver, for example, than in Douglas County.

But with some differences, teachers unions have during the past two local school board election cycles adopted and refined a playbook to counter the money and influence of their policy foes.

National, state and local unions spent more time engaging their members and other labor organizations, recruited and groomed better candidates most places, and devoted considerable financial resources to ensure wins. Unions also loosely aligned themselves with vocal parent groups in some districts, and pushed a variety of messages — both local and national, positive and negative — on doorsteps and in voters’ social media streams and mailboxes.

The time was ripe for such strategies to pay off. Civil rights groups and factions of the Democratic Party have ramped-up their criticisms of charter schools. And then there is the controversy over Donald Trump’s presidency and his tapping of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, emphasized the unions’ attempts to join forces with like-minded groups.

“I think we’ve gotten better, chiefly at talking to the community,” she said. “It’s not teachers alone. It’s parents and other community organizations working together. It’s been particularly grassroots in that regard. It has to be.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, which monitors and critiques reform efforts in Denver and Aurora, said the election should be a wake-up call for reformers who favor strategies such as giving schools more autonomy and holding schools accountable for performance.

“The union did a much better job than they’ve done in the past,” he said. “This should be a message to folks that there is a lot of work to be done to engage the community” before Election Day about how the reforms are improving schools.

Perfecting their game 

Months before the November election, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers rented classrooms to hear the frustrations of their members and to encourage them to participate in this year’s election. 

The message to teachers from their leaders was clear: Talk to your parents, talk to your family, talk to your neighbors about the candidates you support. In an off-year election, consistent and sustained outreach — not attack mailers — is key, union leaders said.

And with no statewide ballot issue to compete with, teachers could more easily capture voters’ attention.

But during the run-up to Nov. 7, those teachers fanned out across the district and walked with members of the Douglas County Parents political committee, in addition to making more than 30,000 phone calls to voters — far more than they’ve ever made.

Particular emphasis was put on turning out the 19,000 union members living in Douglas County.

Similar mobilization efforts played out in Aurora and Denver. While union leaders there are still tallying up totals, anecdotally they believe they made more contact with voters than in recent years.

“We extend our greatest thanks and appreciation to the hundreds of educators who gave their time and talent to participate in neighborhood walks, phone banks and all other forms of support,” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We have seen a great deal of participation, so that has been exciting.”

Teachers were trained to discuss in person and on the phone hyper-local and poll-tested messages, union officials said. In Aurora, the school district with the largest concentration of black and refugee students, teachers discussed career and vocational training. In Douglas County, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, they discussed how higher teacher turnover driven by the school board’s policies was leading to lower academic achievement.

Opponents of the teachers unions were busy contacting voters in the lead up to the election as well. Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy organization, spent six-figures in September to promote charter schools and the Douglas County private-school voucher program.

Multiple messages

While teachers and parent volunteers were knocking on doors, independent political committees fueled by donations from the teachers unions were hitting mailboxes across the Denver-metro area with advertisements — sometimes delivering a more divisive message.

Some of those mailers and other voter outreach attempts came under fire.

One piece of mail in Denver attempted to connect candidate Angela Cobián, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who ran in support of many of the changes Denver schools were making, to Trump and DeVos.

“The union capitalized on legitimate fears of Colorado families that Trump and DeVos are causing incredible harm to our communities,” said Jen Walmer, state director for the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, which through an affiliate spent more than $345,000 to influence the Denver elections. “What I find deplorable is that in Denver the union used the Trump playbook to slander progressive Democrats, including immigrants and women of color, who are running to continue the education legacy of Barack Obama.”

Union officials declined interview requests before the election to discuss campaign mailers and the overall tone of the campaign. This week after the returns were in, union leader Dallman told Chalkbeat that she had not seen the southwest Denver mailer before it was sent out, and she questioned whether it focused on the right issues.

“I think it’s important for school board races to focus on the issues, and I think that the issue here was the support of unfettered charter school growth without adequate accountability and transparency,” she said this week. “I don’t know that issue was clear in the mailers.”

In Douglas County, some voters received text messages sending them to a website created by a committee backed by the teachers union that depicted the union’s opposition as swamp creatures with green skin and glowing red eyes. The committee, which received $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, used the Trumpian slogan to encourage voters to “Drain the Swamp.”

A spokeswoman for the “Elevate Douglas County” slate, the target of the website, called the attacks “mind-blowingly ironic,” and an attempt “to confuse and suppress Republican voters who have not yet turned in their ballots.”

Lessons for reformers

The school reform movement is far from monolithic. In liberal Denver, Democratic-inspired strategies target the district’s large population of disadvantaged students. One of the tenets is universal school choice, and a “portfolio” of district-run, charter and other types of schools.

In wealthy Douglas County, Republican-backed candidates who won control of the board in 2009 brought market-based philosophies including a private school voucher program. That drew national attention in part because most voucher programs target low-income students.

Aurora Public Schools, meanwhile, is trying to forge its own distinctive reform path, including recruiting high-performing charter schools and revamping its principal hiring process.

Union officials and their policy allies sought to blur those lines during the 2017 election, labeling the different reform factions as cut from the same “corporate reformer” cloth.

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank Manhattan Institute who has spent time studying the Douglas County school district, said policymakers who want to improve the system must gauge the willingness of their community.

“The former (Douglas County school) board never stopped to think about what the parents wanted,” he said. “The reforms in Douglas County ran into the ground because teachers and principals felt it was something being done to them.”

Some reform advocates are rethinking the value of attempting to sway school races.

Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy advisor for Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit, said his group did not invest heavily in school board elections this year because he said they are shifting their focus to the state.

“When we helped pass the bill that got charter equity funding, we didn’t have to go and fight 178 school boards,” Sandberg said. “School boards, they have become a place where unions have a stacked deck. At the state legislature, you have a much more level playing field.”

Local school districts that are ahead of the state in implementing reforms, can still serve as “labs” Sandberg said, for demonstrating how something would work.

“But ultimately, it’s gotta be a Colorado-wide solution,” Sandberg said. “ We can’t have a patchwork of unequal policy.”

Marty West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said supporters of reform efforts — especially Democrats — need to do a better job of explaining why they back certain policies, especially now that Obama has left office.

“There are signs in the national election results this week that Democrats may make significant headway at the state and local level next year when many more seats are in play,” he said. “And that typically makes it harder to pursue the traditional reform agenda. That really places a sense of urgency for reformers to reach out to Democrats to convince them of the merits of their ideas.”

Both CEA’s Dallman and DFER’s Walmer said after the election that they saw potential for common ground on some issues of relevance before the 2018 elections.

“A common interest is funding,” Dallman said. “Our communities are continually forced to make up a shortfall in state funding and in doing so, we perpetuate the system of choosing winners and losers. Organizations that believe in public education have to work together to solve the school funding problem.”

Walmer echoed Dallman’s conciliatory tone looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections.

“There is someone to fight here,” she said, “and it isn’t each other.”

— Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed

Big wins

Local voters approved several big money measures for schools this election — including in places you might not expect

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

At least three Colorado school districts whose voters have a history of avoiding tax increases passed ballot measures on Tuesday, providing victories to advocates who ran robust grassroots campaigns amid a growing awareness about the impact of school funding shortfalls.

Voters in Mesa County Valley District 51, based in Grand Junction, passed a $118.5 million school bond and a $6.5 million annual property tax increase. Colorado Springs 11 voters approved a $42 million annual property tax increase and Greeley-Evans District 6 voters approved one worth $14 million a year.

In all three districts, more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, an indication of poverty. In both Colorado Springs and Greeley-Evans, the wins came a year after voters rejected tax increases for schools.

Statewide, 23 of 34 school tax measures passed, according to the Colorado School Finance Project, which tracks school ballot initiatives. Observers said they were encouraged by the broad support for education measures this year, including among districts that don’t easily pass tax hikes.

Lisa Weil, executive director of the school funding advocacy group Great Education Colorado, said the overall trend on local school ballot measures was encouraging, but noted that some district funding initiatives failed, including in Brighton, Montezuma-Cortez and Sterling.

“It shows the importance of a statewide solution,” she said. District-level ballot measures “still do not address the statewide inequities that occur because of the structure of our school funding system.”

That said, Weil, who is a graduate of Greeley Central High School, said she was thrilled about that district’s success this year.

So was Greeley-Evans Superintendent Deirdre Pilch, who described the failure of a similar tax measure last year as “devastating.” The defeat meant cuts to busing for students, outdated materials and employee wages well below those of other northern Colorado districts.

Proceeds from the mill levy override passed Tuesday will boost lagging wages for hourly employees, help the district start an elementary summer school program and pay for security, technology and curriculum updates, Pilch said.

The reason voters agreed to support the tax measure this time was twofold. Besides a more concerted effort to inform voters how the money would be spent, the district created a citizens oversight committee for extra accountability, she said.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials asked for voter feedback after last year’s defeat and subsequently moved from two tax measures to one and simplified the ballot language. The money will be used to boost teacher salaries, add counselors and upgrade buildings.

Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for the district, credited the committee that led the ballot campaign for its on-the-ground efforts — 80,000 phone calls, 40,000 homes visits and 30,000 pieces of campaign literature.

In Mesa County, supporters of the bond and mill levy override that passed on Tuesday say the same kind of door-to-door campaign, along with funding requests for only the most critical needs, helped win voters’ support.

Sarah Johnson, the parent of a ninth-grader in the district, said there hasn’t been a successful school tax measure since before her daughter started kindergarten.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “We’re a really low-tax county. We have a history of really rarely passing tax increase measures.”

Johnson said the new dollars will pay for crucial things such as building repairs, but she’s particularly excited about curriculum updates.

For years, district teachers have done the best they could with limited financial support but, “They’ve been pulling their hair out,” she said

One example comes from her daughter’s Advanced Placement Human Geography class. The teacher worried that her textbooks were so outdated the school was at risk of losing its AP accreditation for the class, she said.

Sarah Shrader, a Grand Junction parent who owns a company that designs zip line and ropes courses, said she’s been part of discussions for years about “how hard it is to recruit executives and talent … because of the condition our schools are in,” she said.

The list of problems is long: broken heating systems, crumbling roofs, ancient carpeting and old teaching materials. The Mesa County Valley district has the middle of five state ratings — “Accredited with Improvement Plan.”

Shrader, who served on the campaign steering committee, said she sees the new tax measures as an investment that will boost economic development in the area.

“I want to see this community thrive and I think we have to invest in our schools,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”