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Union-backed candidates in Jeffco are outspending school board competitors

A masked teacher and students use every other desk in a classroom as a COVID precaution.
Students at Arvada West High School in Jeffco as they returned to in-person classes in January 2021. Seven candidates are vying for seats on Jeffco’s school board in the Nov. 2 election.
AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

As has been typical in recent school board elections in Jeffco, union-backed candidates are outspending opposing conservative candidates.

To date, the seven candidates have reported a collective total of about $255,000 in contributions, but only about $30,000 of that is for the conservative slate of Theresa Shelton, Kathy Miks, and Jeffrey Wilhite, which is against many union issues. The union slate of Paula Reed, Danielle Varda, and Mary Parker has received $224,796 collectively. David Johnson has only raised $200.

In addition, the union slate is benefiting from at least $36,708.72 spent by Students Deserve Better, which has raised $384,000 from teachers union groups to support races across the state.

Students Deserve Better, which is funded by Colorado teachers unions, is the only committee that has reported outside spending on the Jeffco race. Outside spending is when independent committees can spend as much as they want but can’t coordinate with candidates

Some teacher union dollars have also gone directly to the individual candidate’s campaigns. The campaign money that has been spent to date in Jeffco has largely gone to mailers, text messages, and online advertising.

Jeffco Public Schools is the second largest school district in Colorado, serving about 80,000 students. Three of its five school board seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 2 election, meaning the majority of the board could shift.

The district has a new superintendent and has been the center of some controversy over pandemic-related measures, including after the public health department announced, the day before school started, that masks would be required. The district is also seeing staff shortages that have led to cuts in bus and lunch services.

In the past, Jeffco’s 2015 school board election, which included a recall, was the most expensive in the state. At the time, conservative members held the majority on the school board. Its efforts to create a performance-based pay system for teachers and to review history curriculum to ensure it was patriotic enough, among other things, caused enough backlash that the three conservative board members were recalled.

About two weeks before that recall election, the group that was organizing the recall had raised about $252,000 and spent about $76,000. Another group supporting the recall had raised about $32,000. Groups opposed to the recall had contributed much smaller amounts, although one nonprofit group, Americans for Prosperity, that was not allowed to use money to campaign, but only to “educate voters,” announced it would spend six figures on television commercials.

Since then, the union-backed board has increased teacher pay, closed schools, pushed back against new charter schools, and helped the district pass a local tax increase to hire more mental health professionals in schools and to make improvements to old school buildings.

Critics of the board say those projects have gone above budget with little oversight. The conservative slate running this year has fiscal stewardship as one of its priorities.

Statewide, school board candidates have raised more in the Douglas County school board race, and in Denver. Another report on spending is due Nov. 1.

Jeffco candidates have raised and spent:

Danielle Varda, District 1

Total raised: $71,320.82

Total spent: $41,087.02

Big donors: Public Education Committee, associated with Colorado Education Association ($18,166.67); Stephen Keen, attorney ($10,000); The JCEA Small Donor Committee, associated with the Jefferson County Education Association ($24,000)

Jeffrey Wilhite, District 1

Total raised: $9,046.73

Total spent: $4,491.39

Big donors: Raymond German III, ($800); Mark Adcock, architect ($500)

Paula Reed, District 2

Total raised: $73,408.62

Total spent: $61,897

Big donors: Stephen Keen, attorney ($40,000); Public Education Committee, associated with Colorado Education Association ($3,166.67)

Theresa Shelton, District 2

Total raised: $10,913.74

Total spent: $3,553.17

Big donors: Sarah Bock, owner of Glacier Homemade Ice Cream & Gelato ($1,000)

David Johnson, District 2

Total raised: $200

Total spent: $0

Mary Parker, District 5

Total raised: $80,068

Total spent: $55,053.79

Big donors: Stephen Keen, attorney ($10,000); Public Education Committee, associated with Colorado Education Association ($18,166.67); The JCEA Small Donor Committee, associated with the Jefferson County Education Association ($24,000)

Kathy Miks, District 5

Total raised: $10,096.20

Total spent: $3,550.82

Big donors: Raymond German III, ($800)

Committee: Students Deserve Better

Total spent in Jeffco: $36,708.72

Funded by: Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, affiliated with the Colorado Education Association ($257,000) and other teacher association groups.

Expenditures: $36,708.72 on mailers supporting Paula Reed, Danielle Varda, and Mary Parker.

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