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Corrected story: Huge cash influx brings DPS board races spending close to $2 million, with more to come

A canvas bag with stacks of paper money spilling out

Editor’s note: The earlier version of this article incorrectly tallied the total expenditures from Better Leaders, Stronger Schools because the amount was based on preliminary figures in state financial reports. The group has spent $1.022 million in the most recent campaign spending filing.

With a week to go before the Denver school board election, spending to win three board seats is nearing a record $2 million in a multimedia blitz that ranges from personal attack mailers to high-priced TV commercials.

The biggest spender is the organization Better Leaders, Stronger Schools, which is affiliated with Denver Families Action in backing Kimberlee Sia and Marlene De La Rosa, who are challenging incumbents backed by the teachers union, and John Youngquist, who is running for the vacant at-large (citywide) seat being vacated by Auon’tai Anderson.

The group has spent $1.022 million on advertising, direct mail, canvassing, TV commercials, consulting services and other expenses, according to campaign finance reports filed Monday with the Colorado Secretary of State. That is on top of $172,000 spent collectively by Youngquist, Sia and De La Rosa that they reported in mid-October.

Denver Families Action separately has spent an additional $23,500 on the campaign.

By comparison, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Colorado Education Association-affiliated political group Students Deserve Better have spent nearly $286,000 to support citywide at-large candidate Kwame Spearman, Southeast Denver District 1 incumbent Scott Baldermann and Northwest Denver District 5 incumbent Charmaine Lindsay.

That amount combines with more than $180,000 spent collectively from direct donations to Spearman, Baldermann and Lindsay through mid-October.

High stakes, harsh words

“Given the school safety issues, widespread media reports about board dysfunction and the grassroots energy from the Resign group of DPS parents, the stakes are high in this election,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver. “Layered into that, the groups supporting reform policies see an opportunity to reclaim some of the board seats they lost in the last two elections.”

The total spending likely will grow by Nov. 7, considering the state reports show considerable cash on hand by candidates and groups. That amount not only will set a record in Denver but also eclipses campaign spending in Colorado’s other 41 school districts that also have board elections next week, including Jefferson and Douglas counties, Aurora, Cherry Creek and Adams 12.

Despite the spending, the Secretary of State reports that fewer than 18,500 Denver voters returned mail ballots in early voting Oct. 16 to 25th. Turnout traditionally is low in off-year elections like this one, but the statewide property tax measure on the ballot is expected to draw more voter attention in the next week.

The campaign cash has fueled an onslaught of rival advertising, including harsh criticism aimed at candidates mainly through direct mail.  A recent mailer from Better Leaders, Stronger Schools, for example, branded Spearman as a “bully” in his former role as CEO at Tattered Cover bookstores and from articles he wrote when he was a college student at Columbia University nearly 20 years ago.

“Bullying doesn’t belong in our schools or on our school board,” the mailer reads.

Spearman, who is Black, has called the mailer a “dog whistle to fuel racial divisions” because it had a photo of him flanked by a photo of young white boy slumped on the floor with his head in his hands as if he was being bullied at school.

“These types of attacks are the very thing Denver residents do not want,” Spearman said.

Another campaign mailer targeting Baldermann called him out for participating in the closed-door executive session to discuss school safety that the board convened after the March shooting at East High School. A Denver district judge later ruled against the board and in favor of news media outlets that sued the board for violating Colorado’s open meeting law.

“What else is Scott Baldermann hiding from us?” the mailer reads.

Baldermann’s challenger, Kimberlee Sia, also has been targeted with ads funded by the teachers union that her background and advocacy for charter schools threatens neighborhood schools and teachers’ rights. The Students Deserve Better group spent more than $37,000 on negative ads against Sia.

Some positive messaging as well

But there also is plenty of positive messaging. On TV — which is typically an advertising medium for statewide political races because commercials are costly to produce and to buy air time — local viewers are seeing commercials funded by BLSS with Denver Mayor Mike Johnston endorsing the reform slate.

And all the candidates have professionally produced brochures and websites touting their qualifications, priorities and endorsements.

Daniel Aschkinasi of Better Leaders, Stronger Schools said Tuesday that the group’s spending reflects public dissatisfaction with the current board and is necessary to draw voter attention to a high-stakes election. Lela Johnston, DFA chief of staff, said earlier this month that Youngquist, Sia and De La Rosa have the best education credentials and would push for changes on the board to support students at all schools, including the district’s charters and innovation schools.

In contrast, the candidates endorsed by the teachers union have focused more on increasing resources for neighborhood schools and more accountability for charters.

DCTA President Rob Gould said earlier this month that voters should be wary because “the majority of this funding (for reform candidates) comes from dark money outside the state of Colorado.”

Denver Families Action support includes a $1 million grant from City Fund, which awards grants to non-profit educational and community organizations in cities across the country.

City Fund’s focus is to promote more autonomy and innovation for public schools, including charter schools, which at times puts them at odds with teacher unions and elected boards. The organization calls for reforms “when all children have fair access to quality schools, when educators have the flexibility to meet the diverse needs of students, when education leaders reflect the communities they serve, and when families most impacted by the system have the power to change it,” its website states.

Funding for City Fund includes multimillion donations from Netflix founder Reed Hastings and philanthropist John Arnold (Arnold’s foundation provides funding for non-profits including Chalkbeat; City Fund awarded a $488,000 grant last year to RootED, which also provides support for Boardhawk).

Final campaign contribution and spending totals for the school board races won’t be reported by the state until December.