Election 2021: Colorado school board election spending skyrockets

Douglas County, Jeffco, Denver, Cherry Creek among top districts for donations

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More cash is flowing into Colorado school board contests this year than in previous election cycles as teacher unions, charter school advocates and wealthy individual donors open their purse strings to influence closely contested races across the state.

The spending is part of a national trend of contentious school board elections, super-charged by COVID-19, the social justice movement and other hot-button concerns.

The Colorado Sun analyzed candidate and committee campaign finance filings through Oct. 13. The review showed that candidates in 20 school district contests had raised more than $1.9 million, about $672,000 more than candidates in the same districts raised in all of 2017.

In five districts — Cherry Creek, Windsor, Summit, Falcon and Eagle — candidates are raising tens of thousands of dollars in races that didn’t record a single political contribution four years ago.

School board candidates in Colorado aren’t subject to fundraising limits like candidates for state legislature, governor and Congress.

“It’s just a continuing escalation of out-of-control money in these local races,” said state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat who lost a 2011 Denver school board race and last year tried in the state Legislature to limit contributions in school board contests. “It’s pretty staggering.”

The increase in spending is most dramatic in the Douglas County School District, where four of the seven seats on the board are up for election.

Eight Douglas County candidates, four of whom are endorsed by the Colorado GOP, raised more than $444,000 through mid-October, nearly double the $231,000 raised by the eight candidates who ran in the district four years ago.

The four GOP-endorsed candidates this year have raised 71% of the total. Although school board contests are nonpartisan, both Democrats and Republicans are endorsing candidates this year.

In the Cherry Creek School District, six candidates vying for two seats had raised nearly $156,000 through the middle of the month. Four years ago, the election was canceled because the two seats drew only one candidate each.

But it isn’t just suburban Front Range districts seeing more money pour into school board contests this year. Through Oct. 13, candidates in Mesa County raised four times the total raised in 2017. And candidates for the Montrose County School District board have raised more than three times the amount candidates raised in all other previous Montrose County school board elections combined, according to The Montrose Press.

 Big money from teachers unions, individual donors

Teachers unions have been the biggest spenders in school board contests thus far. Their candidate contributions are focusing mostly on districts in Denver, Jefferson, Adams and Larimer counties.

But individual donors are also spending big this year.

Lone Tree real estate developer Eric Garrett donated $30,000 each to four Douglas County school board candidates — Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar, running as the "Kids First" slate — who are also being supported by the Republican Party.

Mike Slattery, who co-owns The Emporium in Castle Rock with his wife, Andrea, gave $20,000 each to the same candidates, while Andrea Slattery gave $10,000 each.

And R. Stanton Dodge, who lives in Castle Pines and is the chief legal counsel for DraftKings, gave $12,500 to each of those four Douglas County candidates.

Stephen Keen, a Fort Collins lawyer, donated $40,000 to Jefferson County school board candidate Paula Reed and $10,000 each to Mary Parker and Danielle Varda in the same district. All three candidates are supported by the Democratic Party.

This year’s large individual contributions stand out compared to prior contests.

The Colorado Sun looked at contributions of $10,000 and more in school board contests statewide in 2017 and 2019. There were five individual contributions of $10,000 to school board candidates in 2017 and 21 in 2019.

That compares with 26 such donations by individuals this year, a statistic that doesn’t include donors who gave multiple times that added up to $10,000 or more.

Teachers unions’ small-donor committees made seven donations of $10,000 or more to school board candidates in 2017 and 14 in 2019. That compares with 14 such donations so far this year.

 Outside cash focused on Denver, Aurora contests

Independent expenditure committees — similar to federal super PACs — are also spending heavily this year.

Ten such groups have spent nearly $1.5 million on mailers, digital ads and other campaign efforts in 13 districts around the state, including Denver, Aurora, Jefferson and Douglas counties.

Most of the independent spending — nearly $818,000 — is in the four Denver Public Schools contests.

The top spender among the committees is Students Deserve Better, which is spending in Denver, Jefferson County, Aurora, Cherry Creek, Brighton and two Larimer County districts. That group is funded by teacher unions.

Parents for Great Schools, another committee spending large sums this year, is focused on the Denver races. It’s funded by Denver Parents for Public Schools, a new nonprofit group that doesn’t have to report its donors.

And Colorado League of Charter Schools Action, funded by a nonprofit of the same name, is spending in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County. The Colorado League of Charter Schools Action nonprofit also doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

To explore candidate and committee reports through Oct. 13 and independent spending reports, go to followthemoneyco.com.

Last year of limitless fundraising?

Sirota, the Democratic state representative from Denver, said her 2020 bill to limit individual contributions to school board candidates at $2,500 “failed because of COVID.”

Lawmakers took a more than two-month break in mid-session and severely altered the agenda upon returning in late May. Sirota’s bill died in a Senate committee.

She said she is considering bringing the legislation back in 2022, but hasn’t made a decision yet.

“It’s probably a better bill to run during an even year,” she said. “It’s less likely to disrupt the middle of a campaign cycle in an even year.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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