Big Money, Bad Judgment, Usual Suspects Swamp DPS Board Race

A report from the Colorado Statesman’s Peter Marcus yesterday:

Denver school board candidates who consider themselves “outsiders” are accusing three other candidates of working together as a kind of unofficial slate backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. The detractors contend that a school reform agenda initially spearheaded by former DPS Superintendant and current U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet – and now being carried out by his successor, Tom Boasberg – is behind the effort to secure three of Denver’s seven school board seats that will be decided Nov. 1 in an all-mail election.

More specifically, at-large candidate Happy Haynes, southeast Denver District 1 candidate Anne Rowe and Jennifer Draper Carson from District 5 in northwest Denver have – according to their opponents in the race – allowed “deceptive attacks” to “tarnish” the Denver School Board race in their quest to advance a reform agenda that includes privatizing public schools…

The controversy erupted in the same week the first campaign finance reports for the race were filed. Made public on Tuesday, the filings suggest that the three so-called “slate” candidates have strong backing from the same group of six wealthy Coloradans, including University of Colorado President Bruce Benson and former University of Denver Chancellor Daniel Ritchie, currently chairman and CEO of the Denver Center for Performing Arts. When Benson secured his post at the university, he promised school officials that he would not endorse candidates or otherwise get involved in partisan causes. The Denver school board race, however, is non-partisan.

In total, the six donors contributed $261,000 – split evenly – to the same three candidates – Haynes, Rowe and Draper Carson. A $30,000 contribution was made by Benson; $78,000 came from Ritchie, $75,000 was listed from Henry Gordon, president of Strata Capital in Englewood; a $30,000 contribution was made by Scott Reiman, founder of Hexagon Investments in Denver; $15,000 was reported in the filings from Richard Saunders, founder of Saunders Construction in Centennial; and Kent Thiry, chief executive of DaVita Inc., gave $30,000. Richard Sapkin, managing principal with Edgemark Development LLC in Denver, donated an additional $10,000 each to Haynes and Rowe.

The campaign contributions are said to be some of the most significant in the history of Denver School Board elections…

The battles over “reform” plans at Denver Public Schools have been raging since now-Sen. Michael Bennet was superintendent. As most of our readers know, we’ve taken a generally dim view of the over-the-top attacks on Bennet, his successor Tom Boasberg, and the continuous state of petty controversy on this board. The dismally failed attempt earlier this year to recall board member Nate Easley, and dubious relationship between that effort and fellow board member Andrea Merida, are all matters of record. We thought then, and still believe, that the recall attempt was foolhardy to an embarrassing extreme for everyone involved.

What a shame, then, that the “reformers” seem determined to make us eat our words: GOP kingpin-turned CU President Bruce Ben$on’s huge checks to these candidates add partisan stigma to their campaigns, even with a thin excuse that it’s not a partisan race–he still pledged to stay out of politics. And remember, there was a legislative attempt to put fundraising limits on these races–a bill scuttled by Republicans. Now we’re in a situation where school board candidates are raising more money than some congressional candidates?

That’s just not right, folks.

In fact, it invites the sort of attacks we have tried to defend them from. For example, it was disclosed last week over at Squarestate that Nate Easley actually attended a party celebrating the Douglas County School District’s embattled religious school voucher program last May–given the lines that have been drawn on this board between “reformers” like Easley and their “progressive” opposition, it’s hard to imagine a more foolish thing to have done. While we don’t believe that Easley would support a program like Douglas County’s in Denver, and even if he did we can’t possibly imagine it passing…would he like to explain celebrating it?

In the end, these circumstances combine to create a situation that in all probability looks much worse than it actually is–the boogeyman of Douglas County’s religious vouchers is most unlikely in Denver, and statistics show pretty clearly that reform efforts at DPS have generally improved graduation and college entry rates. But the flood of money and bad judgment could result in this election flunking, if you will, the “smell test.” Which sometimes matters a lot more.

(Cross-posted from Denver Pols)

28 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Middle of the Road says:

    According to Ed News, Jimenez received $15,000 from Benson in 2009 for his first run for the DPS Board.

    I’m not sure how much traction Jimenez hopes to get against Draper Carson on that donation. People in glass houses and all that…

    [Jimenez’s] final report includes $15,000 donations from Bruce Benson and the Gary-Williams Energy Co., $10,000 from Larry Mizel and $7,500 from John Saeman.

    As for Easley, I’d love to hear an explanation for attending a voucher celebration ceremony. That makes no sense to me at all. If you don’t support vouchers, why are you there? Which leads one to believe he supports vouchers. Thankfully, he isn’t running for re-election because I would believe this would be a major issue for him if he were.  

  2. Gray in Mountains says:

    this kind of money going into a school board race. What is it that folks are hoping to gain with these donations? I hope that all the candidates ate running because they want to improve the schools and the education that the kids receive. Are some looking at school board as a launching pad for some larger political career, ala Wayne Allard and Salazar?

    • Middle of the Road says:

      Our Democratic candidate for HD 49 went directly from serving on our School Board to run for the State House. Marilyn Musgrave served on her local school board before running for higher office. It’s considered a jump off point for grooming candidates for higher office.

      But the amount of money being sunk into these races, from the local and national unions, from corporate donors, from out of state fundraisers with a Montana governor, from out of state money from multiple educational organizations such as DFER and Stand for Children suggests this is about a whole lot more than grooming future candidates.

      Keep in mind that every single candidate running is a Democrat. You have Democrats pitting themselves against fellow Democrats in what is loosely called a “non partisan race,” by only the most naive.  

    • outTHIS says:

      Was already in the race.  The DCTA has had virtually unlimited funds, historically, to dump into these races (even so much that they were able to spend a quarter of a million dollars in shady attack ads on Mayor Hancock on the eve of the runoff election).  

      It’s just come to the point where their candidates are so poor, and their track record so unsuccessful, that it looks like we’re seeing people from all over the political landscape doing what they can to take back the leadership of Denver schools and get the ship pointed in a direction that prioritizes student success rather than DCTA power.

      • droll says:

        Easley was originally elected with union funds. How poor is he?

        Both sides are idiots and neither has any real interest in students. Go yell about evil unions  somewhere else. Neither side is defensible, so it kind of shits all over the alternative.

        • outTHIS says:

          When they were of the belief that he would submarine any reform efforts that infringed upon the DCTA’s monopoly.

          He was then threatened with recall (allegedly) before the vote to proceed with reforms by DCTA emissaries, and we all know how the rest of the story turned out. A recall attempt was made, and tons of cash have now been dumped into multiple races by the DCTA against any candidate that might side with pro-reform Dems.

          The DCTA and CEA are starting to realize that the public is waking up to the fact that the people driving the bus the last forty years have utterly destroyed the system, while becoming the most powerful PEU on the block.  Most people with children don’t care who’s in charge, as long as they think their kids are the priority, which in the case of the DCTA, they clearly aren’t.

          • droll says:

            Two groups want the same thing, supposedly, but it’s fine when one side does it. Magical even. The other side hates America, children, whatever.

            Very astute to point out that the union is against people who are against unions. Truly shocking. It doesn’t stop the best results from schools here, or abroad, saying that both sides are… wait for it… kinda wrong.

            Working together might work out better, but neither side seems to have big kid pants to do it. Petty difference trump children. Blame doesn’t rest completely with the union. So, again, take your union-evil skit to a different issue. It’s not helping with the larger issue here. It can’t. The alternative isn’t right either.

            Unfortunately, neither side is really up for a discussion on how to get better. Well, we’d have to listen to the enemy to do that. Grr, rawr, Union/Reform wrong!

            Fuck it, enjoy your mess. You’re earning it.

        • Aristotle says:

          Beside the money from Benson and company on this side, you have a nationally popular governor from another state stumping and fundraising for at least one of the candidates for the other side.

          Eesh….

          • WitnessProtectionForGeeks says:

            It is something I respect regardless of politics.

            David worked for Schweitzer.  Schweitzer stumps for Emily.

            • Aristotle says:

              I found it surprising, given the time and expense it must have cost, and for a school board election (as opposed to a statewide office). I suppose if it was simply a fundraiser, we can say it’s loyalty. I still wonder, but I won’t fret about it much.

            • nancycronk says:

              Emily may have more legislative and policy experience than David. Her background in public policy is very impressive. She literally brought all-day kindergarten to Montana while working for the Governor.  

          • droll says:

            There is a fairly defined benefit of being on the reform bus. See Groff, a statewide election, a mayoral election, etc. It’s a big deal that goes all the way to POTUS*.

            The union hacks seem a bit less organized in this shill-fest payoff and are more than a bit pissed off about it. I suspect it’s more of a cash thing than power.

            Or maybe I’m a hopeless cynic.

            *I’m not suggesting anything devious by bringing Obama into it. He tends to support it, it makes sense that he would support others who do.

  3. ColoMod says:

    for doing bipartisan work?

    Come on, Pols! Shame!

    Bruce Benson is obviously a Republican, yes. But he is an extremely pragmatic advocate for public education. He is not a crazy right-wing education reformer that wants to privatize schools.

    Even in the face of extreme budget cuts year after year, Benson has been staunchly opposed to any privatization talks to the university.

    Sure, there are some people you just shouldn’t take money from, like uh, Tancredo for instance. But until money doesn’t matter in elections, this attack by anti-reformers is a desperate attempt to ignore the fact that DPS needs reform, badly.

    • ArapaGOP says:

      Bruce Benson is one of the closest people Colorado has to a statesman. Benson truly cares about education, and he puts his money where his mouth is. From school board races to the Benson Earth Sciences Center at CU.

      One small modification, Benson is not “staunchly” opposed to privatization. It might not be his preference, but his excellent fundraising for CU proves he is getting the school ready for that future. He’s a deeply pragmatic man.

  4. WitnessProtectionForGeeks says:

    Too much of their money comes from reform=vouchers folks.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t believe any of the candidates are pro-voucher, but I don’t like some of the dogs some people have bedded down with.

    I also don’t like that Boasberg runs the board, not the other way around.  The lack of transparency is disturbing.  I find that the pro reform folks are not worried in the least about the governance issue which troubles me the most.

    Until i get better transparency i don’t trust DPS.

    • GalapagoLarry says:

      Boasberg’s backers are trying to pack the board with rubber stampers of his/Bennet’s so-called “reforms”. The individual candidates themselves may not consider themselves a “slate”, but to their coordinating donors that’s what they are. I smell vouchers and union busting.

  5. davebarnes says:

    into dust.

    And, then, we can begin to make progress.

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