Election analysis

Smoke screen of outside money, complex disclosure laws obscure spending in school board races

This screenshot is from a video produced by Americans for Prosperity, an outside group involved in the Douglas County school board elections. The video urges viewers to call board members and thank them for supporting school choice but doesn’t suggest voting for or against specific candidates.

Good luck if you’re trying to follow the money in Colorado’s increasingly expensive and contentious school board races.

Increased involvement by outside groups and inconsistencies in state law have made it harder for voters to track who’s supporting board candidates.

“We’ll probably never know” how much money was spent in 2015 school board races, said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a research and advocacy group.

Referring to Jefferson County, Colorado’s hottest board contest, journalist Sandra Fish said, “We’re never going to know how much money is being spent on this recall.”

Board campaign spending started to escalate in 2009, when total contributions to candidates for the Denver Public Schools board went well into six figures. DPS elections have continued to be high dollar since then, and candidates in Douglas County and Jefferson County have jumped on that bandwagon.

Some observers project contributions will top $1 million this year in Jeffco, where a recall campaign against three incumbents is combined with a regular election for two other board seats.

Several factors are involved in the growth of school board campaign spending and in the difficulty of tracking that money:

  • Organized groups not directly connected to individual candidates have become bigger players in board races.
  • Even as contributions and spending have soared, state campaign finance laws require less frequent public financial reporting by outside groups on board contests than is required for legislative and other state races in general elections.
  • That problem of limited disclosure is particularly acute with independent expenditure committees, which spend money on campaign ads independently of candidates but don’t have to provide as much detail in off-year elections.
  • A different set of campaign committees, known commonly as C4s, can spend money in campaigns without any public disclosure of their activities, depending on how they word their ads.
  • Finally, school board seats are among a handful of Colorado elected offices for which there are no limits on individual contributions to candidates.

The rise of outside committees

School board races traditionally were funded by individual contributions to candidates, with teachers union committees the largest but still modest contributors in some bigger districts.

Increasing polarization over school choice, district budgets, the role of teachers unions and issues like vouchers have drawn increasing outside interest in school board races.

For instance, in the 2013 Douglas County board elections, $228,378 was contributed to candidates but there was at least in $220,943 in independent expenditures by outside groups, according to data compiled by Ethics Watch.

That pattern is continuing this year in both Dougco and Jeffco.

“We are spending in the low six figures in both Jeffco and Dougco on educating residents about the positive reforms of the school boards,” said Michael Fields, Colorado head of Americans for Prosperity.

In Dougco, “low six figures” would exceed what the six candidates have raised themselves. Americans for Prosperity is connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, who are major funders of conservative causes at the national and local levels.

In Denver, a similar dynamic is playing out, albeit on the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, is a major purchaser of campaign materials supporting DPS board candidates who support the district’s reform efforts. Different kinds of committees connected to teachers unions are major direct contributors to opposition candidates.

Ethics Watch has been working to track 2015 spending in the Jeffco recall and has produced a graphic following “traceable” and “untraceable” money. See the graphic at the bottom of this article for the group’s analysis of some 2013 school board spending.

Information limited in off-year elections

State election laws govern a bewildering variety of campaign organizations, including candidate committees, issue committees, small donor committees, independent expenditure committees and others.

The most important committees in school board elections are candidate committees, independent expenditure committees and small donor committees. Small donor committees are the traditional vehicle for unions to make campaign contributions, and those committees usually are funded by dues check-offs. Such committees can contribute to candidate committees, but independent committees can’t.

Different rules apply to different kinds of committees – who can contribute to them, the size of those contributions they can receive, to whom they can give money and what they have to disclose in periodic reports to the secretary of state’s office.

But all those committees have one thing in common – they have to disclose their activities more frequently in even-numbered years when general elections are held than they do in odd-numbered years, when school board elections are held.

In even-numbered years most committees must file reports every two weeks between the beginning of September and the general election in November. Some reports also are required earlier in the year.

But in odd-numbered years most committees have to file only a single report in mid-October and then not report again until the following mid-January. So committees’ contributions and spending during the height of the election season, starting about Oct. 1, aren’t available to the public until the new year, long after the campaigns are forgotten.

An example of the information gap is provided by an independent committee named the Douglas County Education Alliance, which has produced materials supporting school board incumbents. The committee registered with the secretary of state on Sept. 29, one day before the end of the July 1-Sept. 30 reporting period. So when the committee filed its report on Oct. 15 it listed no contribution and no spending. It now doesn’t have to file a report until Jan. 15, 2016.

The group’s registered agent, Randy Reed, didn’t respond to questions asked by Chalkbeat Colorado.

Why are there different reporting requirements by year?

Observers say it’s largely because campaign finance laws were written before odd-year elections become contentious. A constitutional amendment governing campaign finance was passed by voters 13 years ago, and the most recent legislative tweak in finance laws was passed in 2010.

“Our fundamental campaign finance law in the Colorado constitution was enacted in 2002 when school board elections weren’t so major,” said Toro of Ethics Watch. “They kind of fell between the cracks.”

Both Toro and Fish think the legislature should perhaps rethink the reporting deadlines.

“Maybe it’s time for the state to take a look at requiring more frequent reporting, especially since the money appears to be growing in these [board] elections,” said Fish, an independent journalist who has written extensively on campaign finance.

Yet another reporting gap

Independent expenditure committees are a unique animal. They have to report their contributors, and they have to report what they spend. But they are barred from coordinating their efforts with candidates and their personal committees.

If you find a glossy brochure in your mailbox that reads “Vote for John Doe,” or “Don’t vote for Mary Smith,” with a disclaimer like “Paid for by the Committee for a Better City,” chances are it was paid for by an independent committee.

During regular elections in even-numbered years, such committees must make separate reports within 48 hours of making “electioneering communications,” expenditures for or against specific candidates. But that requirement doesn’t apply in odd-numbered years, leaving the public and political operatives without real-time information about what such committees are doing.

“Dark money” playing a bigger role

There’s yet another group of committees that doesn’t have to report contributions or spending reports – as long as they follow certain rules.

Known in the political world as C4s (after a section of the Internal Revenue Service code), such committees are nonprofits that are allowed to distribute political ads and materials – as long as they don’t cross a certain line.

That line is this: The committees aren’t allowed to use what political operatives call “the magic words” – like “vote for Smith” or “vote against Doe.”

A video ad produced by Americans for Prosperity in Douglas County is a classic of the genre.

The ad features a retired teacher named Denise Denny, who says, “Some of the best schools in the country are right here in Douglas County.”

As a phone number appears in the video, Denny says, “Call the Douglas County school board and thank them for supporting school choice, because more choices mean more opportunity, and that makes all the difference.”

Americans for Prosperity has posted similar videos in Jeffco during this fall’s campaign.

Sometimes C4 committees work in tandem with independent groups.

Raising Colorado’s sole source of funding this year is Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based C4. Both are arms of Democrats for Education Reform. Raising Colorado has to report who gave it money and how that cash was spent. But Education Reform Now Advocacy doesn’t have to report contributors, so the ultimate source of Raising Colorado’s funding isn’t public.

In 2014, Education Reform Now Advocacy gave $465,000 to Raising Colorado, according to reports on file with the secretary of state. Between January and September of this year, the group gave $250,000 to Raising Colorado, according to the latest filing, which was submitted on October 15. Raising Colorado doesn’t have to file again until January, which means it will be months before the public will know how much money the New York-based group gave to the Colorado committee in the last few weeks before the election.

Jen Walmer, Raising Colorado’s registered agent and head of DFER in Colorado, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

Nonprofit groups that participate in elections do have to detail some of their finances in reports to the Internal Revenue Service, through Form 990s. Those reports provide information about how much a nonprofit has raised and spent but not about the specific sources of its income. But those reports only are filed once a year, long after elections are over. (For an example, see this 2014 990 filing by Citizens for Sound Government, a Lakewood-based conservative group that has sponsored literature in this year’s Dougco races.)

And then there are the candidates

The campaign committees set up by candidates do have to report their financial activities more frequently in odd-year elections. Filings are required in mid-October and then at the end of the month, providing an up-to-date look at contributions and spending right up to the election. Final reports are due in early December.

But unlike many other office seekers, like legislative candidates, there is no limit on the amount of individual contributions to school board candidates. Issue committees, which are part of the Jeffco recall, also don’t have contribution limits.

“Theoretically you could give a million dollars to one of these candidates,” jokes Fish.

That hasn’t happened, but there were five-figure individual donations to DPS and Dougco candidates in past elections.

That bothered Denver Democratic state Rep. Beth McCann, who’s now running for district attorney.

“The current lack of limits makes it extremely difficult for a parent to run to be a school board member unless he or she has contacts with a lot of wealthy individuals or those with certain agendas,” McCann.

She sponsored bills in 2011 and 2012 to cap board campaign contributions, but both measures died.

“It was very hard to get support from the unions or the outside interests as they do not necessarily want to limit their ability to make and collect contributions,” McCann said.

She said she expects future efforts to limit contributions, but not during the upcoming legislative session.

Toro of Ethics Watch is somewhat less worried about contribution limits, noting that much of the spending in school board races seems to have shifted to outside groups.

And Fish notes that because of the reporting requirements imposed on candidate, “It may not be to your advantage to take large contributions.”

Jan Tanner, an outgoing board member in Colorado Springs District 11, feels candidates are at a disadvantage because they have a reporting burden not shared by independent committees.

“There’s so much soft money [and] there’s no teeth in the law to make sure it’s reported,” in contrast to the detailed filings required of candidate committees, she said.

“If you’re trying to hide money there are lots of ways to do it.”

Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

EthicsWatch2013Chart

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

Share your thoughts on Boasberg’s exit here:

reading list

These 12 stories help define Tom Boasberg’s tenure leading Denver’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat File Photo
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, center, with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and a DPS student on the opening day of school in 2011.

Tom Boasberg, who today announced his plans to step down as Denver’s schools superintendent, leaves behind nearly a decade of high-profile debates and decisions that reshaped the city’s public school system and made plenty of local and national headlines.

For years, Boasberg’s tenure featured sharp political divides among the city’s school board. His school improvement efforts, notably in the city’s Far Northeast neighborhood, garnered mixed results for students. And his embrace of nontraditional school management, the so-called “portfolio model,” has earned him national praise.

Here’s a chronological look back at a dozen stories that defined his nearly decade of leading Denver Public Schools.

Denver Public Schools “therapy” forges progress

In 2009, at a daylong meeting attended by Denver school board members, Boasberg, and a therapist, the superintendent and the board appeared to forge closer ties after a divisive school board election. The session at the tony Broadmoor Hotel included coaching board members and Boasberg through some difficult conversations about their respective roles – and Boasberg’s job security.

More shared campuses, still controversial

One of the first waves of school reform policies the district embraced was locating multiple schools on one campus. While Boasberg didn’t start the district’s practice of placing charter and district-run schools on shared sites, his administration did continue it — much to the dismay of some schools’ staff and community members.

Boasberg’s school improvement efforts in Far Northeast Denver take off

One of the superintendent’s earliest — and most ambitious — school turnaround strategies was to overhaul schools in the city’s Far Northeast neighborhood. The neighborhood, which serves a majority of black and Latino students, had the highest concentration of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Boasberg: Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility

No school in Denver has been subject to more improvement efforts — by multiple superintendents — than storied Manual High School. After some minor improvements, the school took a turn for the worse and by 2014 was once again the city’s lowest-performing school. After dismissing the school’s principal, Boasberg took ownership of the school’s downfall.

Denver Public Schools ‘ahead of the curve’ with proposed facilities policy

After years of opening and closing numerous schools, DPS began to formalize the process. One of its first stabs at systematizing its “portfolio model” was a facilities policy. The policy, which applies to both charter and district schools, would tie placement decisions to schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, and other district priorities.

Why Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg landed an unprecedented six-month break

In January of 2016, Boasberg took off for six months with his family for a trip to Latin America. The uncommon stability of Denver Public Schools made his respite possible, observers said.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s vision for giving more power to schools, annotated

Denver Public Schools has long strived to be more decentralized and less top-down. More than a year after the school board granted school leaders more autonomy, Boasberg penned a document detailing how he envisions the district should function under that philosophy. Here we explain and provide context for Boasberg’s memo.

Efforts to better integrate Denver middle schools proving tough, analysis finds

One way Boasberg and Denver Public Schools attempted to fight school segregation was the creation of “enrollment zones.” The idea was that extending boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them would increase integration in a gentrifying city where many neighborhoods are segregated. But there was little evidence of success six years in.

Inside the rocky rollout of Denver Public Schools’ new school closure policy

Another policy Boasberg and the Denver school board created to guide its portfolio strategy was the “School Performance Compact.” Boasberg insisted the school closure policy was not the leading strategy to try to achieve the district’s improvement goals. The policy, he said, took a back seat to initiatives such as better coaching for teachers and improved reading instruction for young students. Instead, Boasberg described the policy as “a little bit of a safety mechanism” to be used when “these strategies don’t work and where over a period of time, kids are showing such low growth that we need to have a more significant intervention.”

Denver Public Schools retooling equity measure, presses forward on scoring schools

Denver’s well-established – and sometimes controversial – school rating system got an update in 2017 when the district added a new “equity measure.” Despite some pushback from school leaders, Boasberg and the district pushed forward with scoring schools based on how well they closed the gap between students who performed well on state tests (usually white and middle-class) and those who didn’t (usually black and Latino from low-income homes.)

Denver schools chief: Removing DACA protections for undocumented immigrants would be ‘catastrophic’

Boasberg took on a new role in the Trump era. The typically reserved superintendent regularly sought to reassure students, parents, and his own employees that he would protect them from any apparent overreach by the new administration. He also regularly spoke out in favor of Congress protecting the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. “Our schools and our community are strengthened by our city’s rich diversity and open arms,” Boasberg said. “The DACA program has helped bring wonderfully talented and critically needed teachers to our classrooms and has provided peace of mind and legal status to thousands of immigrant children and families who make our city and our schools great.”

Large achievement gaps in Denver highlighted by new national test data

Despite years of change, Denver’s achievement gap has barely budged. That fact was reinforced earlier this year after DPS received its scores from the tests known as “the nation’s report card.” At the time Boasberg said the latest scores confirmed the district needed to continue to focus on closing its gaps. He repeated his concern about the gaps when he discussed his exit with Chalkbeat.