Spending on Colorado school board races by outside groups surpasses $1.5 million

Given how much cash the groups have on hand, the total could surpass $2 million.

George Washington High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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George Washington High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; high school; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
George Washington High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Nic GarciaChalkbeat

Outside groups seeking to influence school board races in the Denver-metro area continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at a steady clip, new records show.

Political committees linked to education reform advocates and teachers unions spent nearly $600,000 between Oct. 12 and Oct. 31 in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County school board races. That brings the reported total spent on races in those three school districts to $1.65 million this election cycle.

And committees still have plenty of time and money to spend before Election Day, Nov. 7. Given how much cash the groups have on hand, the total could surpass $2 million.

The investments from outside groups in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County — where education reform advocates and teachers unions are locked in heated battles for control — are a sharp contrast to dozens of school districts across the state where elections have been canceled due to a lack of interest.

In Denver, committees that support candidates who will keep the district on its current path — which includes supporting a mix of school types, more autonomy for school leaders and closing persistently low-performing schools — are outspending critics by more than 2-to-1.

The dynamics — and the type of reform efforts — differ in Douglas County. There, a political committee that supports candidates who want change has outpaced a Republican-backed committee that supports candidates who have promised to keep alive a legal fight over the district’s private school voucher program.

And in Aurora, a new education battleground, those who support that district’s policies — including turning to charter school operators to lift student performance — are about on the same financial footing as opponents in support from independent committees.

The new figures come from a Chalkbeat analysis of fresh campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office. The reports include donations and contributions between Oct. 12 and Oct. 25. Political groups known as “independent expenditure committees” were required to report new contribution and spending totals by midnight Monday. Chalkbeat is also including additional spending after Oct. 25 and reported by committees.

The political committees are allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates.

The money spent by these committees is just one piece to understanding the money behind school board races in the Centennial State. Individual candidates must also report fundraising totals, and another round of those reports are due Friday.

The public, though, will never know the true scope of spending to win school board races.

Political nonprofits such as Americans For Prosperity, which is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and supports conservative education reform principles, pledged to spend “six figures” to push private school vouchers in Douglas County.

The use of vouchers is a central tension in the Douglas County race. Because of Americans for Prosperity’s federal tax status and because it is not supporting or opposing candidates, it’s not required to disclose how much it spends.

With seven days left until Election Day, here’s a look at how much money committees have spent on mailers, digital ads and consultants:

Denver, the state’s largest school district, continues to attract the most money.

Raising Colorado, a committee linked to the political nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform, has spent more than $345,000 to support school board incumbents and candidates who support the direction of the district and Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Those candidates include Barbara O’Brien, Mike Johnson, Rachele Espiritu and Angela Cobian. Raising Colorado has also spent part of its war chest, $13,765, on a mailer against Espiritu’s competition Jennifer Bacon, records show.

Meanwhile, Every Student Succeeds, a committee connected to the teachers union, has spent a total of $115,000 to support Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan, who is opposing Cobian in southwest Denver.

Our Denver Our Schools, backed by a nonprofit with the same name, launched Oct. 16 and has spent $6,080 to support Carrie Olson, Robert Speth, Tay Anderson and Gaytan. All four candidates have promised to slow down the district’s reform efforts.

Families First Colorado, a committee backed by the conservative education reform nonprofit Ready Colorado, spent more than $4,300 to back incumbent Espiritu.

In Aurora, Raising Colorado has spent $149,322 to support three candidates — Gail Pough, Miguel In Suk Lovato and Lea Stead — who support the district’s school improvement efforts, which include attracting Denver-based charter school networks such as DSST.

Every Student Succeeds put another $100,000 in the race, bringing its total support of a slate of candidates endorsed by the Aurora teachers union to $185,966.

Families First Colorado spent $19,116 on supporting Pough and Lovato.

Spending has slowed in Douglas County. The only reported spending between Oct. 12 and Oct. 31 was by a committee backed by high profile Republicans. The Republican Committee spent $54,000 to support the Elevate Douglas County slate. Those four candidates — Debora Scheffel, Randy Mills, Grant Nelson and Ryan Abresch — generally support the direction of the district and have promised to keep alive a legal battle over the district’s private school voucher program.

The GOP-backed committee this fall has also spent nearly $125,000 on consultants, but records don’t identify which candidates the consultants were working to support or oppose. The committee paid one group, Purple State Communications, $20,000 for mailers supporting the Elevate slate, and $11,000 for consulting, records show.

A committee backing a slate of candidates — Krista Holtzmann, Chris Schor, Kevin Leung and Anthony Graziano — that has promised to end the voucher court case didn’t report any spending. However, it did receive a $15,000 donation from a group linked to the Colorado Education Association, the state’s teachers union, to help the CommUnity Matters slate.

That puts the Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids committee’s war chest to use in the last week of the election at $148,577. The Republican Committee, which is used to support Republican candidates in other races as well, has $331,108 on hand.

Another group, Douglas County Parents, which has a political committee designation with the state and can coordinate with candidates, has so far raised more than $42,000 to help boost the CommUnity Matters slate.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Douglas County Parents as an independent expenditure committee. It’s a political committee, which means it can coordinate directly with candidates. This post has also been updated to include additional information about spending by the a GOP-backed committee in Douglas County. This article has also been updated to correct an error that said the said the Douglas Schools committee received an $85,000 donation from NEA. It was a $15,000 donation from CEA.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.