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A Wild Ride

Big Money Loses In Park Hill School Board Races

A Wild Ride

Big Money Loses In Park Hill School Board Races

More than $1.6 million was spent to elect four directors to the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. The politicization of these unpaid positions brought in big money, some from out of state, along with some drama.

Where the money came from: A breakdown of candidates’ campaign contributions, as well as money that was spent by various outside expenditure groups. The right-hand column is a tally of the total amount spent per voter as of Nov. 21.

Park Hill residents voted in three of those four races: District 3 (south of Montview Boulevard), District 4 (north of Montview Boulevard), and At-Large (citywide).

In the Park Hill districts, two challengers beat the incumbents, despite the general rule of thumb that incumbents with the big money generally win.

District 3 – The teacher wins

Carrie Olson, a 33-year teacher, won the race with an 8 percent margin. In all, $34,399 went towards her election. Five times that amount — $180,582, was spent on her opponent, incumbent Mike Johnson.

Olson’s victory speaks to a rising discontent with DPS “reforms,” and the effectiveness of a strong grassroots campaign that was run by DPS parent Susan Johnson and her son, Zach Cheikho.

“This campaign was a wild ride!” said Cheikho, a recent South High School graduate.  “We didn’t have huge donors like our opponent, but as the days went by, we built a strong group of community volunteers who all felt that Carrie would protect neighborhood schools, hold DPS’s billion dollar budget accountable, and listen to students, teachers, and communities. Our campaign was truly grassroots. We won by knocking on doors, phone banking, and meeting people all over central Denver.”

“This first campaign has been important to me,” continued Cheikho. “It has taught me that we can resist the influence of special interests and wealthy donors on our local elections. I learned that by using the strength of our communities, who are truly passionate when the cause is just, we can elect candidates who represent US, not just the rich and powerful.”

District 4 – Big money down the hole

The three-person race between incumbent Rachele Espiritu, Jennifer Bacon and Tay Anderson left my mailbox overflowing with flyers. I received a total of 42 flyers, most of them in support of Espiritu and Bacon.

Although more than $300,000 was spent in support of Espiritu, she received only 33 percent of the vote, with each costing $36.54. That was by far the most spent per vote in this campaign. Late October contributions by big donors – University of Colorado President Bruce Benson gave $10,000; Pat Hamill of Oakwood Homes gave $7,500; Teletech Founder Kenneth Tuchman gave $2,500 – could not salvage the campaign.

Bacon won this race with the support of the teachers’ unions independent expenditure committee, Brighter Futures for Denver, which contributed $160,990 toward her win. Each vote cost $21.77.

Tay Anderson, the recent graduate from Manual High School, ran a vibrant campaign but only garnered 25% of the votes. He says he will be back.

On Nov. 19 Bacon and Anderson posted a joint Facebook video in which Anderson said to this supporters, “It’s now time to support our new school board member. It’s what I’m going to be doing as a citizen of District 4.”

At –Large incumbent prevails

Nearly a half-million dollars was used to keep incumbent Barbara O’Brien in her seat. Her campaign – along with two independent expenditure committees, Raising Colorado and Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado – collected $439,573 toward her election.

O’Brien’s closest opponent, Robert Speth, who lost by less than one percent two years ago when he ran against Allegra “Happy” Haynes, tallied a total of $32,840 spent toward his campaign this year. That included $3,875 from Our Denver, Our Schools, a local grassroots independent expenditure committee. O’Brien’s votes cost more than 11 times – $8.94 per vote – what the Speth votes cost – 77 cents.  Speth received 35 percent and O’Brien won with 40 percent.

The third candidate in the race, Julie Bañuelos, received 24 percent of the votes.

The voters’ message to incumbent O’Brien appears to be that she and other “pro-reformers” need to be more receptive to other voices in the community.

District 2 – Cobian squeaks out a win

A bit further away in District 2’s tight race, Angela Cobian won 52 percent of the votes against Sochi Gaytan, who trailed her opponent by only 753 votes. Cobian was supported by Denver’s “pro-reform” crowd and its independent expenditure committees.

Influential Donors

Perhaps you supported your favorite candidates with a donation of $20 or even $100. But a good portion of the campaigns’ funds came from wealthy donors.

Bruce Benson contributed a total of $35,000 to the “pro-reform” candidates, including Cobian, Espiritu, Johnson, and O’Brien. In fact, since 2011, Benson has contributed more than $120,000 to “pro-reform” candidates, including Happy Haynes, and Anne Rowe, who still sit on the DPS Board.

Pat Hamill contributed more than $20,000 to the same slate of candidates. Like Benson, he also contributed extensively to previous DPS board campaigns. Since 2011, he has contributed almost $58,000 to “pro-reform” candidates.

Scott Reiman, Chairman and CEO of Hexagon Investment, also contributed a total of $20,000 to Cobian, Espiritu, Johnson and O’Brien.  Since 2011, he has given $61,000 to “pro-reform” candidates.

San Francisco billionaire and venture capitalist Arthur Rock gave a total of $15,000 to Cobian and Bacon’s campaigns. Rock serves on the National Board of Directors of Teach for America. He is also on the board of Leadership for Education Equity, a nonprofit that develops leadership qualities in former TFA participants. Both Bacon and Cobian are TFA alums. Cobian is the Manager of Organizing Strategy for LEE while Bacon is LEE’s Regional Director for Colorado. Rock is also a generous donor to KIPP charter schools, which has 209 schools nationally, including five in Denver.

Kenneth Tuchman and his wife Debra Tuchman of Greenwood Village contributed a total of $7,500 to Espiritu, Johnson and O’Brien.

This just skims the surface. Imagine if all this money was donated directly into classrooms instead of political campaigns. If you ever thought education wasn’t a political issue – that it was just about the kids – the amounts of money funneled into these campaigns should make you think twice.

Outside groups working in tandem

There were also the huge amounts of money and effort coming from independent action committees.

When candidates were asked about these committees during the campaign, reformers would typically dodge the questions. They would claim “their campaigns” would not take corporate money or funds that didn’t come directly from an individual, and that they “had no control” over what independent organizations did. Indeed, these action committees didn’t give funds directly to the campaigns but they worked in tandem to support the candidates. They created their own flyers and hired separate canvassers. The end goal was the same: the election of specific candidates.

Specifically, when asked about Raising Colorado, Espiritu and Johnson said they could not control what “outside groups” were doing. This did not stop them, however, from accepting direct campaign donations from Jennifer Walmer. Walmer is the state Director for Democrats for Education Reform, and the registered agent for Raising Colorado, which is DFER’s independent expenditure committee. Incumbent candidate O’Brien, who was one of the candidates supported by Raising Colorado, currently sits on DFER’s Colorado Advisory Committee.

By far the biggest spender in this race, Raising Colorado spent more than half a million on promoting the “pro-reform” candidates, Cobian, Espiritu, Johnson and O’Brien. Their efforts helped elect two out of four candidates.

In September 2017, Raising Colorado received $625,000 from Education Reform Now Advocacy, which is registered in New York. Since 2014, Education Reform Now Advocacy has poured more than $2 million into Raising Colorado.

In 2014 and 2015 tax documents, Walmer is listed as the Colorado State Director for Education Reform Now Advocacy. Before her involvement with DFER and other pro-reform groups, Walmer pushed for reforms from within as DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s Chief of Staff.

If your head is spinning from this tangled web, it is because of the incestuous nature of all these organizations.

The teachers’ unions also had their own expenditure committees, Every Student Succeeds and Brighter Futures for Denver. Ironically, these did not provide a great deal of support for Olson, the 33-year teacher who has long paid union dues. Gaytan and Bacon were the recipient of these monies. The investment was fruitful in only one of the races – Bacon’s. And, Olson won in the end.

Turnout was an abysmal 17%

It has definitely been an interesting election season. What are the takeaways?

Big money does not always win but it takes incredible efforts from the bottom up to overcome its influential role in our local elections.

When running against an incumbent with strong name recognition and solid financial backing, it would behoove the opposing parties to run just one candidate.

With election turnout estimated to be an abysmal 17 percent, one has to wonder about the extent to which Denver residents care about public education, how a big part of their tax money is spent and the state of democracy. It’s a good thing civics is still part of the curriculum.

Lynn Kalinauskas is education chair for GPHC, Inc.

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