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Campaign finance limits proposed for Colorado school board races

Poll workers gather ballots at a Denver Elections Division polling site, marked off by a series of orange traffic cones.

Donations to individual school board candidates would be significantly curtailed under proposed legislation in Colorado.

Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

In the aftermath of hotly contested, big money school board elections around the state, Colorado lawmakers are seeking to cap for the first time how much donors can give to candidates in those races.

But legislation that passed a House committee Monday won’t affect spending by independent committees that play a significant role in some contests.

House Bill 1060 would limit individual donations in school board races to $2,500 and donations by small donor committees to $25,000 per candidate. School boards are among the few elected offices in Colorado without limits on campaign contributions, and the caps proposed in the bill are higher than those for many other offices. 

“Our election system should provide a level playing field so that every candidate has a shot, not just those with a handful of wealthy friends,” bill sponsor state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, told the House State Affairs Committee.

Heated debates over COVID protocols, masking, teaching about race, and parents’ rights fueled unprecedented interest in Colorado school board elections last year. More than $2.8 million flowed into 213 school board campaigns, and independent expenditure committees spent $2.1 million more on school board races, according to campaign finance reports.

The measure would have had the biggest impact on individual giving last year. Of those giving more than $2,500 to a candidate, 29 people donated more than $622,000 to 34 candidates. That’s more than a fifth of all individual contributions in school board races. Nearly half that cash went to four conservative Douglas County candidates who won their contests.

Lone Tree real estate developer Eric Garrett donated $30,000 each to four Douglas County school board candidates — Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers, and Kaylee Winegar. Mike Slattery, who co-owns The Emporium in Castle Rock with his wife, Andrea, gave $20,000 each to the same candidates, while Andrea Slattery gave $10,000 each. 

R. Stanton Dodge, who lives in Castle Pines and is the chief legal counsel for DraftKings, gave $12,500 to each of those four Douglas County candidates.

Stephen Keen, a Fort Collins lawyer, donated $40,000 to Jefferson County school board candidate Paula Reed and $10,000 each to Mary Parker and Danielle Varda in the same district. The candidates, who also received financial support from the teachers union, won their election.

And in the Cherry Creek School District, Terrance Bates gave $41,400 to incumbent Kelly Bates, who won a three-way race against two more conservative challengers. 

Small donor committees contributed more than $524,000 to 80 candidates. But in only six instances did those donations exceed $25,000 per candidate. Each of those donations went to four successful candidates for the Denver Public Schools board and were from two committees representing teachers unions: the Public Education Committee, funded by Colorado Education Association members, and the DCTA Fund, funded by Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

The District Twelve Educators Political Action Committee spent nearly $122,000 on Jackson Dreiling’s unsuccessful campaign in the Adams County school district. The bill would treat political committees like individuals, limiting them to $2,500 per candidate.

The law already limits donations from political committees to other types of candidates. For example, they can’t donate more than $2,000 to county commissioners or more than $400 to state Senate candidates.

A series of school board candidates, some successful, some not, told legislators that the need to raise so much money deterred many people from running for office and took control of school board elections away from the community. They also said it made school board races more politicized.

“There is an idea that if you’re funded by the union you’re left and if you’re funded by something outside the union you’re right, and I was funded by neither,” said Beth Niznik, who said that she took pride in winning a three-way race for Boulder Valley school board despite raising the least money. “That is the public perception. These are nonpartisan races.”

The bill is supported by Common Cause and Clean Slate Now, groups that advocate for transparency and campaign finance reform, as well as by Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the League of Women Voters, Education Reform Advocacy Now and the Colorado Association of School Boards. 

Candidates who benefited from large donations in the most recent election didn’t testify.

Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, hasn’t taken a position on the bill. In an emailed statement, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert noted that educators voluntarily give money to support candidates who agree with union positions.

“Regardless of what happens with this bill, we will continue to ensure that hard-working educators who actually serve students, not corporate interests, have a way to support pro-public education candidates,” she said.

The bill wouldn’t limit spending by independent expenditure committees, which are protected by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United. Independent expenditure committees may take unlimited donations and spend unlimited amounts, but they can’t give directly to candidates and aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidate campaigns.

Such committees don’t participate in most school board races, but in Denver Public Schools, independent expenditure committees accounted for about 67% of the $1.8 million spent last fall. Groups more supportive of education reform outspent groups affiliated with the teachers union, but failed to persuade voters. That $1.2 million in independent spending on Denver contests accounted for nearly 57% of the $2.1 million total in such spending on school board races last year.

Nor would the bill limit how much candidates could spend on their own campaigns. Denver school board member Scott Baldermann spent more than $300,000 of his own money to get elected in 2019. 

“I think this bill is going to have the opposite effect, and we’re going to see an increase in dark money [coming into elections], we’re going to see an increase of outside national influence,” said state Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican who voted no. “I think we should be free to donate to the candidate, and then the candidate can be held responsible for whatever literature, whatever campaign material is put out, whereas independent expenditure committees are not held accountable.”

Democrats on the committee said they shared those concerns, but didn’t see that as a reason to have no limits on individual contributions. The bill passed 6 to 4 with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. It still needs to pass the full House and Senate before going to the governor’s desk.

Sirota acknowledged the bill won’t take money out of politics, but the change still feels valuable.

“Anyone who follows these school board races, it’s hard to imagine it getting any nastier,” Sirota said. “We aren’t going to fix a broken system, but this is one step we can take.”

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