DARK MONEY Haunting Denver School Board Races Again

It spawned a Jane Mayer best selling book.  It has made its presence felt in the last six elections for seats on the Denver Public Schools Board. It is rearing its ugly head and exerting its power in the current school board races in Denver.  It has changed politics in this country for the foreseeable future and not for the better. The IT? DARK MONEY. From mostly out of state Independent Expenditure Committees.

From the most recent filings in the four school board races here is what we know and don’t know: historically involved outside organizations and people are still paying and playing, and some new ones are, too. Colorado League of Charter Schools, Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, and of course, the old standby Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) along with newbies 50 CAN, Parents for Great Schools, and Denver Students, Families, and Teachers United for Excellent Schools. What we don’t know: who are the actual donors and how much are they investing?

Four DARK MONEY organizations have participated so far in the current election cycle to support three candidates who in turn support the privatization of public schools.  These entities, while maintaining their independence from any candidate, continue to be the ultimate DARK MONEY vehicles because, unless a donor wishes to be identified specifically, all contributions are anonymous.  Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee in 2010 started the tsunami of secrecy. The DARK MONEY enterprises route and reroute money to each other to clearly support a candidate without transparency. There are no contribution limits. There are very loose reporting requirements. They also hire and rehire many of the same supporters, or place them on the various enterprises’ Board of Directors.

The active DARK MONEY players in the 2021 DPS School Board election so far are:

  1. Parents for Great Schools which has received $150,000 from a DARK MONEY group called “Denver Families for Public Schools”. Both organizations have the same registered business agent who happened to be the local executive director of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) which happened to be the Teach for America offshoot that employed current DPS board members Angela Cobian and Jennifer Bacon. Neither incumbent is seeking re-election.
  2. Denver Students, Families, and Teachers United for Excellent Schools  (DSFTUES) which is an I.E. for something called the Ten Collective Impact which is an offshoot of a the national reform organization 50 CAN. The local 50 CAN chapter is called TEN, Transform Education Now. It’s executive director just got married to District 2 reform candidate, Karolina Villagrana. DSFTUES has $95,000 in its coffers from just four large donors and has already given $50,000 to its mother organization, 50 CAN for future use. From its website:
    • Contributions or gifts to Denver Students, Families and Teachers United for Excellent Schools are not tax deductible as charitable contributions or as business expenses under IRS Section 162(e). Contributions will be publicly reported according to Colorado law. Both individuals and corporations may donate with no limits. My emphasis
  3. Colorado League of Charter Schools Action I.E. has received $50,000 from the Colorado League of Charter Schools (CLCS). A little bit of transparency at last. However, the CLCS connection to the national reform movement becomes clearer when you look at its Board of Directors. Two stand out:
    • 1) Pat Donovan, Managing Partner of Denver’s RootEd, which is a relative newcomer to the privatization landscape in Denver. RootEd is funded by the Reed Hastings/John Arnold foundation The City Fund and has been the recipient of a $21 million dollar grant from The City Fund to “… partner with local leaders to create innovative public school systems“, and
    • 2) Rosemary Rodriguez, former DPS School Board member, former Denver city council president, and former statewide political director for former DPS superintendent and current U.S. Senator Michael Bennet.
  4. Raising Colorado, which is the I.E. for the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), has a bank account of roughly $90,500 ready to spend, $25,500 leftover from the last election and $65,000 deposited into its bank account from the Colorado League of Charter schools ($20,000), Education Reform Now Advocacy ($25,000) and TEN Collaborative Impact ($20,000). Its executive director is Jen Walmer, former DPS chief of staff.

Contributions to DARK MONEY groups have come from:

  1. Parents for Great Schools received $150,000 from somewhere.
  2. DSFTUES received money from the following organizations:
    • 50 CAN – $50,000
    • CLCS – $15,000
    • Education Reform Now Advocacy – $15,000
    • Parents for Great Schools – $15,000
    • Dan Scanavino – $10,000
    • Stand for Children – $15,000
    • TOTAL – $95,000
  3. CLCS Action
    • CLCS – $50,000
  4. Raising Colorado
    • CLCS – $20,000
    • ERNA – $25,000
    • TEN – $20,000
    • TOTAL – $65,000

TOTAL CONTRIBUTIONS to date from these 4 organizations: $360,000

Wouldn’t you like to know what parents and students and teachers and families have that kind of money and commitment to be able to contribute to public education races in Denver so you could thank them?  Well, because of Citizen’s United they will never happen, and as we all know, these folks are most likely not really people but rather corporations.  And again, thank the Supreme Court for that anonymity and secrecy.

EXPENDITURES by these groups to date:

  1. Parents for Great Schools
    • DSFTUES – $15,000
    • Raising Colorado – $20,000
    • Gene Fashaw Canvassing – $17,500
    • Fashaw Digital Advertising – $19,000
    • Vernon Jones Canvassing 0 $52,500
    • Karolina Villagrana Digital ads – $19,000
    • TOTAL – $143,000
    • Vernon Jones Mailer – $61,000
    • Digital ads for Jones, Fashaw, Villagrana – $25,000
    • TOTAL – $86,000
  3. CLCS Action
    • Vernon Jones Mailer and internet – $18,000
    • Gene Fashaw Mailer and canvass – $20,714
    • TOTAL – $38,714

EXPENDITURES to date from these 3 organizations – $267,714

Here is where the DARK MONEY has gone so far:

  • Vernon Jones – $139,500
  • Gene Fashaw – $65,214
  • Karolina Villagrana – $27,000

If you follow the money as best you can, you will see one group often funds another group and that group can fund I.E’s of or other political committees who then act on behalf of a candidate.  And the players go seamlessly from one “team” to another. This can be very confusing but the bottom line is not:  $360,000 of DARK MONEY has arrived from primarily out of state DARK MONEY groups to buy three non-paying DPS board seats.  Why and who is really behind the influx of DARK MONEY and what do the privatizers hope to gain?  If history is a harbinger of the future, we can most certainly expect this to be just the first wave of money flooding these races. The 2019 races drew upwards of $1,000,000 for three seats. And in spite of the warm and fuzzy names attached to these rather insidious committees – family, parents, teacher, students, excellent schools, great education, etc. – it is rather disconcerting to see all this DARK MONEY going into buying our school board AGAIN, especially since we in Denver have seen very little improvement in educational outcomes over the past 15 year education reform reign. Look at all the interconnections. Look at proliferation of organizations funded by the same billionaires. Do you think the real goal could be jobs for friends? It certainly can’t be excellent equitable education for ALL given the track record!