November’s Denver school board election was the most expensive in district history, with candidates and outside groups spending $2.28 million, campaign finance reports show.
That’s far more than the $1.54 million spent in 2017, and nearly three times the $796,082 spent in 2015. The Denver school board holds elections every two years.
Three seats on the seven-member board were up for grabs Nov. 5. In a historic sweep, candidates backed by the teachers union won all three seats. Their victory effectively “flipped” the school board majority, which had long been held by members supportive of reform strategies that the union opposes.
As in past years, pro-reform groups spent big in an effort to elect candidates supportive of school choice and charter schools. But they were unsuccessful. Three independent expenditure committees — Students for Education Reform Action Committee, Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, and Ready Colorado Action Fund — spent more than $1 million to support candidates Alexis Menocal Harrigan, Diana Romero Campbell, and Tony Curcio, all of whom lost.
The pro-reform committees poured nearly half a million — about $467,000 — into Menocal Harrigan’s at-large race, which was the only race in which all Denver voters could cast ballots. The other races were regional, meaning only voters who live in those districts could vote.
Such spending is often referred to as “outside money.” Independent expenditure committees can spend unlimited amounts of money, but cannot coordinate with the candidates.
The Denver and Colorado teachers unions had their own independent expenditure committee, called Students Deserve Better. It spent a fraction of what pro-reform groups spent: $153,000 in support of candidates Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick, all of whom won.
Through different committees, the Denver and Colorado teachers unions gave more than $150,000 directly to two of the winning candidates. The Denver union also spent more than $24,000 on political consultants.
While the candidates themselves ran largely positive campaigns, the independent expenditure committees produced several attack ads. They included anti-reform mailers from the union committee that sparked backlash for omitting two candidates’ Spanish surnames, and a pro-reform mailer that attempted to tie Anderson to a flag-burning incident.
The nine candidates themselves spent a combined total of $1.09 million. The high total was due in part to the spending of a single candidate, Baldermann, who largely self-funded his campaign. Baldermann spent more than $386,000, a record amount.
Baldermann’s spending dwarfed that of his opponents, Diana Romero Campbell and Radhika Nath. His spending was more than triple that of Romero Campbell, who had the backing of pro-reform groups, and more than 10 times what Nath spent.
Notably, not all of the top spenders won. While that was true for Baldermann in southeast Denver’s District 1 and for Laurvick in northwest Denver’s District 5, it was not true in the citywide at-large race. Anderson won despite spending less than Menocal Harrigan.