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Big outside money pours into Denver, Dougco school board races

October 17, 2017 Updated: October 17, 2017 at 5:53 pm
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The first volley of big money that will be spent on school board races in Colorado this year comes from opposing sides, but most of the money is being spent in two separate counties, Denver and Douglas.

The first big sum reported comes from a group of Wall Street financiers who promote charter schools. So far, that group has put $625,000 in the past month into an independent expenditure committee that's spending on Denver-area school board races, according to TRACER, the Secretary of State's campaign finance disclosure website.

Should all four candidates for the Denver Public Schools (DPS) board backed by the committee win their elections next month, the committee, which calls itself "Raising Colorado," will have supported every member of the DPS board. Three others supported by the group won in 2015.

Raising Colorado isn't the only big spender on school board races. Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, which opposes the conservative slate known as Elevate Douglas County and backs the so-called Dream Team, received a $300,000 contribution from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) this month.

The independent expenditure committee, which by law cannot coordinate with candidates, also got $100,000 from a dark money group, Citizens for Integrity. The donor has no website and lists only a Denver post office box address; no other information appears to be available.

AFT is affiliated with the Douglas County Federation, the local teachers union. However, unlike other teachers' unions, the federation does not have a collective bargaining agreement with the school district; that was eliminated by the conservative majority in 2012.

Raising Colorado is run by Jen Walmer, the state director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), part of Education Reform Now, which is backed by Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers.

Walmer and DFER research director Jack Teter were notified in a letter from the Secretary of State's Office in early May that they both are under investigation for lobbying on bills in the 2017 session, although neither is registered as a lobbyist, potentially a violation of state law.

Walmer served as chief of staff for House Democrats from 2009 to 2012. She also has served as chief of staff to DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Raising Colorado's money in 2017 has come from only one source: Education Reform Now Advocacy, the 501(c)4 affiliate of Education Reform Now. A 501(c)4 is an IRS designation that includes "social welfare" organizations. Under that designation, no more than 49 percent of the organization's money can go to political contributions. The parent group, Education Reform Now, backs charter schools and support ending teacher tenure in public schools.

Raising Colorado has so far put more than $317,000 toward supporting four DPS candidates, including former Lt. Gov. and at-large incumbent Barbara O'Brien, who serves on DFER's advisory board, district 3 incumbent Michael Johnson, district 4 incumbent Rachele Espiritu and in an open seat in district 2, Angela Cobain. Raising Colorado paid for websites, mailers and social media that support the four candidates.

Walmer and Teter both caught heat this past legislative session for lobbying on at least five bills in the 2017 session, including the early version of a bill that requires school districts to share mill levies with charter schools. A later version of that bill passed on the last day of the session and was signed into law by the governor. Neither Walmer nor Teter are registered lobbyists, but both appeared at committee hearings, testifying on policy positions on behalf of DFER, according to May 4 letters sent to both by the Secretary of State's office, which regulates lobbyists.

The complaints were filed by Ilana Spiegel, a former candidate for the state board of education and a public school advocate. According to the Secretary of State's office, the complaints are still pending.

Another dark money group playing in the 2017 DPS election: Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado. The committee is funded by Stand for Children, an Oregon-based education reform group that backed the 2010 legislation on teacher evaluations, sponsored by now-gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston, D-Denver. Stand for Children took in more than $10 million in 2016, according to an IRS filing, but does not disclose who donates.

BSSC pulled in $100,000 in August, and spent more than $76,000 of it last week on a mailer supporting O'Brien in the DPS race.

On the opposing side, Brighter Futures for Denver took in $139,000 in October, and recently spent $116,000 on a mailer to support Jennifer Bacon, a candidate for DPS district 4. The independent expenditure committee received most of its funding from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

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