sweeping change

Anti-voucher slate in Douglas County cruises to victory

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)

An aligned group of Douglas County school board candidates seeking to reverse many of the district’s most controversial policies — including a private-school voucher program — cruised to victory early Wednesday.

As of 12:30 a.m., with all ballots counted, members of the “CommUnity Matters” slate were ahead of their opponents by about 16 percentage points in unofficial results.

“We’re feeling really thankful,” said Krista Holtzmann, one of the members of the slate. “We heard our community speak loud and clear tonight that they believe in and support our public schools.”

The victory by members of the CommUnity slate comes eight years after a group of candidates backed by the local Republican Party took control of the Douglas County school board. The CommUnity slate opposed many of the board’s recent initiatives — including a private-school voucher program.

Four seats on the seven-member board were up for grabs this year, putting the controversial voucher program, which has been stalled for years in the court system, and the philosophical direction of Colorado’s third largest district on the line. Members of the CommUnity slate oppose vouchers and will likely end the district’s defense of the program.

That move would be a blow for national conservative education reform advocates who wanted to see the district’s voucher program prevail in court. A court victory could have set a national precedent for private-school vouchers by eliminating so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which forbid tax dollars going to religious institutions, from dozens of state constitutions. If the district withdraws its defense, the legal fight will end without resolution — one reason why the Douglas County race drew national interest.

The CommUnity Matters slate includes Holtzmann, Chris Schor, Anthony Graziano, and Kevin Leung. Their opponents, the “Elevate Douglas County” slate, were Debora Scheffel, Randy Mills, Ryan Abresch, and Grant Nelson. As of 10 p.m., the Elevate slate had not conceded the race.

“There’s nothing to do but keep fighting for educational opportunity,” Ross Izard, policy director for ACE Scholarships and a voucher proponent who supported the Elevate slate, said in a statement Tuesday evening. “There are still thousands of kids whose needs are not being met by the current system. I don’t think parental choice advocates have any plans to stop pushing for policies that would expand options for those students.”

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, poured $300,000 into the race to help the CommUnity slate, the most recent records show. The union is one of the loudest national critics of charter schools, which receive public tax dollars but are run independently of school districts, and of private school vouchers. The union lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2011 after the conservative board decided to stop negotiations.

“Douglas County voters have chosen a school board that places students at the center of every decision and believes in the value of an accountable, transparent public education system, not an ideology that fails our students and educators,” said Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, the local AFT affiliate. “We are eager for teachers to have the opportunity to work with the board on issues that will restore and propel our public schools forward in preparing our students for school, college and career.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, also celebrated the slate’s win in Douglas County.

“Voters spoke out against misguided and ineffective reforms that aren’t helping our children, and have rejected attempts to divert public dollars to private schools,” Dallman said in a statement. “This is a great election result for all students in Colorado, preventing the spread of harmful voucher schemes.”

The differences between the two groups of candidates were stark.

The CommUnity slate promised to end the district’s defense of the 2011 voucher program. The slate, which was backed by the Douglas County Parents political committee and the teachers union, also pledged to seek more local tax dollars to repair school buildings and pay educators more.

The Elevate slate candidates wanted to continue to defend the voucher program, but stopped short of saying they’d restart the program if given the OK by the courts. The slate, which was endorsed by the Douglas County Republican Party and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support from deep-pocketed school choice advocates, said it wanted to rebuild trust in the district before asking voters for more money.

However, there was some agreement among all candidates. Both slates promised to revisit the district’s unique “market-based” pay structure for teachers.

After the results are certified, the CommUnity slate will join three board members who also had the backing of the Douglas County Parents group. Some worry they could create a 7-0 board where dissenting views do not get heard.

Leung said late Tuesday that the premise doesn’t hold up.

“To assume we’ll have one voice is inaccurate,” he said.

Leung added that the board will work with the district’s charter school community, which was uneasy during the election.

“We have all the kids’ interests at heart,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they go to a charter school. We will try to bring everyone together.”

Earlier on Tuesday, candidates, supporters, and observers said they hoped that regardless of the outcome they hoped the district, which has been roiled by controversy since 2009, could heal and move forward.

“Tomorrow, winners or losers, we have a really big effort to work toward asking voters for more money,” said Kerrie Riker-Keller, a Douglas County parent who sits on a number of district committees. “Everyone’s going to need to put aside their differences to work toward that.”

Schor, a member of the CommUnity slate who ran to represent Castle Rock, said she hopes everyone who has been engaged in the election continues to work to improve the district’s schools.

“I think if everyone who is involved in this election continues to use this energy to focus on children, we’ll be all right,” she said.

Randy Mills, a member of the Elevate slate who opposed Schor, said earlier in the evening that he and his teammates expected a close race.

“We feel confident that we left everything in the arena,” he said in a statement before the polls closed. “I, my slate-mates, and our volunteers have canvassed the district with our conservative vision for transparency, accountability, stability, education excellence, and broadened vocational education. We are hopeful we will be entrusted to carry out that vision.”

According to the Secretary of State’s office, 79,841 Douglas County ballots were counted by 9 p.m. More than 92,000 votes were cast in 2015, the last time seats on the school board were up for grabs.

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.