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.