Denver school board race steeped in politics

The Colorado Statesman

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.

In return, District 5 incumbent Arturo Jimenez, who is facing a spirited challenge from Draper Carson, has launched an aggressive media blitz in the last week asking the three so-called “slate candidates” to denounce an ad by Latinos For Education Reform that accuses him and fellow board member Andrea Merida of being against reform. The ad, which has run in some local newspapers, endorses Draper Carson, Rowe and Haynes, and attempts to isolate Jimenez and Merida from the northwest Latino community.

“It’s just an attack by folks who aren’t in this district and can’t vote here and are trying to influence the vote in northwest Denver,” Jimenez decried.

The ad boasts the support of prominent local Latinos, including Spanish-language TV executive Mario Carrera, U.S. Housing and Urban Development regional director Rick Garcia, Denver School Board member Theresa Peña, and Bennet senior staffer Rosemary Rodriguez, to name a few.

At least two of the candidates endorsed by Latinos For Education Reform told The Colorado Statesman that they will not denounce the ad and are quite grateful for the endorsement and media attention.

“I’m welcoming the endorsement of this group of folks who have the best interests of our kids at heart,” explained Haynes. “They feel passionately about what they think needs to happen.”

“Many of the folks in that group have been great leaders in Denver…” added Rowe. “I am very honored by their support because they are doing so much for their city, and I think they have a right to have their voices heard.”

Draper Carson, a former growth strategy and development consultant with Greatschools.org, did not return a request for comment.

Jimenez addressed the issue Tuesday at a press conference outside North High School where he was joined by former Mayor Wellington Webb, who has endorsed Jimenez as well as “pro-reform” candidates Haynes and Rowe.

Mayoral endorsements have been a focal point of the race, with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock publicly supporting Haynes and Rowe. Those involved in the race are eagerly waiting to see whether Hancock will endorse Draper Carson, as Hancock has been a strong supporter of Boasberg and his focus on school reform. With Webb being a longtime friend and mentor to Hancock — and having endorsed him earlier this year in the mayoral race — it has suddenly become unclear whether Hancock will support Draper Carson given Webb’s endorsement of Jimenez.

Caught outside his office on Thursday, Hancock told The Statesman that he plans on making an endorsement in the northwest Denver school board race “very soon,” and that Webb’s endorsement of Jimenez has not affected his decision.

Critics have accused Hancock of endorsing Haynes and Rowe without sitting down with the other candidates, and he has been silent about the controversy facing District 5 in northwest Denver. A spokeswoman for Hancock did not immediately return a request for comment regarding the criticism.

Big money in the race from big names

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. Up to now, the school board candidates with the best fundraising records have been Theresa Peña, who raised a total of $216,610 in 2007, and Mary Seawell, who raised a total of $240,605 in 2009. Haynes, who served as chief community engagement officer for the Denver Public Schools from 2005 through May of this year and who is seeking Pena’s at-large open seat, has already raised $213,789 and is expected to break those records.

Many of the contributions this year come from the oil and gas industry and from investment bankers. Gordon, president of Strata Capital and Strata Resources, a business that offers investment and oil and gas consulting services in Denver, candidly admitted to The Statesman that he was not familiar with the particular candidates when he was asked to contribute $75,000. Gordon says he received a call from his friend Ritchie, who requested that he match his donations to Haynes, Rowe and Draper Carson. Gordon complied.

“I adore the man,” Gordon said about the civic-minded Ritchie. “We talked about this a year ago and he told me that this is what he was doing with his private money,” recounted Gordon. “He asked, and I said ‘absolutely.’”

Gordon told a different story to the Denver Post when asked by reporter Yesenia Robles about the contributions a few hours later. He told the Post that he donated to the three candidates because he believes they wouldn’t cave to union pressures. But when asked about it again on Thursday by The Statesman, Gordon maintained that his primary motivation was to honor Ritchie’s request.

Gordon said he and Ritchie never discussed their long-term motivations for donating to the candidates.

“He’s 83, 84 years old, we don’t talk long-term,” said Gordon.

Actually, Gordon added, his contribution was for $100,000. He says he cut a corporate check from Strata Capital for the remaining $25,000, but that contribution cannot be found on the campaign finance reports to date.

It is illegal for corporations to donate directly to candidates in Colorado, unless the donation is issued under a limited liability company and the name of an individual is disclosed to the secretary of state, according to the secretary of state’s office. But the remaining $25,000 that Gordon believes he contributed does not appear on the current campaign filings. The next round of filings is due on Oct. 28.

Haynes happy about her fundraising

Haynes’ fundraising to date dwarfs that of her four at-large opponents. Of her 546 donors, 10 contributed $117,000. In addition to the group of six contributions made to all three of the so-called “slate” candidates, Haynes also received $5,000 from attorney Stan Raine, $10,000 from investor Scott Reiman, $5,000 from real estate developer Greg Stevinson, and $10,000 from philanthropist Pat Stryker, a well-known funder of Democratic candidates. She reported $93,934 cash-on-hand.

Opponents John Daniel, an engineer who lists his experience in the district as having taught Aikido to kids for 20 years, raised a paltry $244; Frank Deserino, a social studies teacher at Denver South High School, reported $16,790 in contributions, of which $15,500 came from the candidate himself; Roger Kilgore, a former school volunteer who feels the current DPS-style of reform needs to be redirected, reported $8,464 in donations, with $2,000 from himself; and Jacqui Shumway, who says she has spent the last two years since her District 4 run for school board two years ago “studying, learning, serving, and trying to understand this massive entity called DPS and the public education system,” reported $2,034, of which $1,500 came from herself. She transferred nearly $500 from her 2009 school board campaign committee.

A few days after the reports were filed, Kilgore lashed out against what he called “shameless influence peddling” by frontrunner Haynes.

Her campaign contributions, said Kilgore in a press release issued Thursday night, include $31,000 of in-kind services from “Oregon-based special interest group called Stand for Children (SFC).”

Kilgore noted that earlier in the week, SFC amended its filing with the Secretary of State’s office “to hide the fact that they are based in Portland, Oregon.” And, Kilgore charged, the SFC political committee also represents 12 other committees including the Colorado Republican Leadership Fund and the Senate (Republican) Majority Fund, both which he pointed out, raise money “to influence races for the Colorado statehouse.”

In District 1, where Rowe and Sirota are vying for the seat now held by Bruce Hoyt, who is term-limited, Rowe currently leads in campaign contributions with $176,320. She outpaces Sirota, who listed only $57,962.

In addition to the large contributions from the group of six, Rowe also saw notable donations from Michael Fries, chief executive of Liberty Media ($20,000), and David Scanavino, a retired doctor and member of the Denver Scholarship Foundation board who gave $5,000. Rowe also received an in-kind donation of $15,477 from Stand for Children.

Sirota, a self-employed community social worker who moved from Montana to Denver in 2007, has won the backing of her former boss, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was scheduled to do a fundraiser Thursday evening for Sirota that was expected to raise a lot of money.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association contributed $22,500 to Sirota’s campaign and $24,000 to Jimenez’ reelection effort.

Draper Carson raised a total of $124,760, outpacing District 5 opponent and incumbent Jimenez, who raised only $59,478. In addition to the group of six, Draper Carson also received $3,000 from John Freyer, president of Land Title Guarantee Company, and $4,000 from Jane Hays.

Powerful political interests at play, some contend

While Sirota insists she is confident of victory despite Rowe’s significant fundraising advantage, she does acknowledge that there are powerful political interests at play that could tilt the balance of the entire election.

“There’s a smaller group of people with political influence trying to use it,” Sirota charged. “They’ve lost sight that this is supposed to be about educating our children. Now it’s all about this line in the sand.”

Sirota was referring to a notion that board members are “pro-reform,” or “anti-reform,” and align either with the teachers union or with former DPS chief Bennet’s Denver Plan. The issue of privatized and innovative education, including charter schools and autonomous schools of innovation, is said to be at the core of the controversy. Those on the so-called “pro-reform” side purportedly favor privatized education, while “anti-reform” advocates are assumed to support existing community schools.

Some of the candidates, however, claim there isn’t any such thing as “anti-reform,” and certainly no line drawn in the sand. Instead, they maintain, reform efforts should include a combination of ideas from all sides.

Behind the scenes, though, they suggest that the largesse of political capital being spent on the race is, in part, to preserve Bennet’s school reform legacy. If Bennet’s initial Denver Plan fails, they contend, it could leave a black eye on his political career.

Bennet, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year, is currently in the spotlight as he tries to add reform measures to the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. His proposals include merit-based licensing of teachers and promoting school flexibility and innovation — ideas he introduced as superintendent of DPS. His ideas for reform back then caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who reportedly considered appointing Bennet to the cabinet post of Secretary of Education before eventually settling on Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the public school system in Obama’s hometown of Chicago.

“The politics of it are about him,” confirmed Sirota. “He (Bennet) is the sitting senator now and he does tout his experience in DPS. And Tom Boasberg is continuing his Denver Plan; Boasberg was his hand-picked successor.”

Bennet has not publicly endorsed any candidates in this year’s school board race and a spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment. But Bennet’s wife, Susan Daggett, is listed as having donated $2,200 to Haynes’ campaign, $600 to Draper Carson and $100 to Rowe.

Rowe admits that many of the reform efforts being pushed by the current school administration were first instituted by Bennet and are therefore important to his legacy. And she acknowledged contacting Craig Hughes of the Ridder Braden consulting firm in Denver to discuss campaign strategy. Hughes managed Bennet’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2010.

“I do think that Michael, through the creation of the Denver Plan, set a foundation for the direction that we are now going under Tom,” said Rowe. “But I think what we’ve seen under Tom is a continued path… to create a high-achieving educational environment for our kids.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com