Follow the money

Denver incumbents continue to bring in more money than challengers in school board race

The last year Denverites voted on school board members — 2015. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).
Total donations as of Oct. 29
Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $116,046
Mike Johnson, District 3: $101,236
Angela Cobián, District 2: $97,809
Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $93,185
Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $65,272
Robert Speth, At-Large: $47,040
Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $30,524
“Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $27,912
Tay Anderson, District 4: $18,341
Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $12,767

Denver school board incumbents continue to raise more money than challengers who want to push the district in a different direction, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who formerly served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor and represents the city at-large on the board, continued to lead in fundraising. She’d raised a total of $116,046 as of Oct. 29, when the campaign finance filing period ended.

Close behind her was Mike Johnson, the incumbent who represents central-east Denver’s District 3, followed by political newcomer Angela Cobián, who is running to represent southwest’s District 2 and has the endorsement of the current board member.

Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent in a heated three-candidate battle for the District 4 seat in northeast Denver, had the fourth-highest fundraising total.

Johnson raised the most money — $19,381 — of any candidate in any Denver race during the 16-day filing period, which began Oct. 13 and ended Oct. 29. The filing period is the last one before Tuesday’s election.

Another candidate, Robert Speth, who is running against O’Brien for the at-large seat, brought in more money during that period, but it included $18,075 in loans to himself.

Four seats are up for grabs on the seven-member board, which means the election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The election has grown more rancorous in the final stretch, including heightened rhetoric about outside money and controversial campaign mailers seeking to cast supporters of the district’s strategies as allies of Donald Trump.

As of Friday, the Colorado Secretary of State’s office reported 53,949 Denver ballots had been turned in. In 2015, the last time there was a school board election, 124,119 votes were cast, which represented a 29 percent voter turnout, according to the Denver Elections Division.

Among the notable contributions in the most recent fundraising report:

Espiritu and Johnson received $10,000 each from University of Colorado president Bruce Benson. Espiritu also brought in $5,000 from Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill, while Johnson got a $5,000 donation from Scott Reiman, CEO of Hexagon private investment company.

The biggest donor to Johnson’s challenger, union-backed teacher Carrie A. Olson, was the small donor committee of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which gave her $3,500.

The committee gave $2,000 to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in the only race that doesn’t feature an incumbent, and $1,500 to Speth. He also received $3,500 from the Public Education Committee, a small donor committee associated with the statewide union.

The Denver union did not give any money to Jennifer Bacon, who it endorsed in District 4. Bacon’s biggest contribution was $1,000 from Denver City Council president Albus Brooks.

Tay Anderson, who is also running in the competitive District 4 race, got his largest donation — $400 — from former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him.

Julie Bañuelos, who is challenging O’Brien and Speth for the at-large seat, got $500 from the Green Party of the United States. Bañuelos’s campaign was previously in the red, having spent more than it had raised, but that was no longer the case as of Oct. 29.

Spending by outside groups barred from coordinating with campaigns has been significant. As of reports from earlier this week, independent committees that support DPS’s brand of reform have outspent opponents, primarily committees funded by teachers unions, by a 2-1 margin.

While the pro-reform groups have invested in all four races, the union-backed committees concentrated their efforts on two: backing Bacon in the northeast Denver race and and Gaytán in the southwest Denver race.


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.