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Coincidences abound in campaign effort to dis teachers unions

click to enlarge Billboards, such as this one along Highway 24 in western Colorado Springs, are allegedly sponsored by a group called the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents. However, the groups Web domain name has been tied to the pro-voucher group Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Billboards, such as this one along Highway 24 in western Colorado Springs, are allegedly sponsored by a group called the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents. However, the groups Web domain name has been tied to the pro-voucher group Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education.

You may have seen the billboards around Colorado Springs declaring, "Teachers' union fails our kids, parents, schools."

You may also have heard the radio and TV ads, claiming that the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers union, is causing public schools to fail because it puts politics and union interests ahead of educating children.

But if you've visited the campaign's Web site, you may have had a difficult time figuring out who exactly is making these charges. The site, www.changecoloradoeducation.org, states that the campaign is led by a group called the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents, but lists no members or any contact information.

The man who filed incorporation papers for the group last month, Colorado Springs attorney Eric Hall, refuses to say who's behind the group.

And though several indicators seem to tie the campaign to a leading school-voucher advocacy organization headed by former Congressman and current U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, called the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education, CARE's policy director this week denied that the group has anything to do with the campaign.

In fact, the policy director, Dan Njegomir, suggested whoever is behind the campaign may have stolen CARE's name.

"The more I think about it, the more it seems plausible," Njegomir said.

Political operatives abound

The Independent contacted Njegomir, a former Gazette editorial-page editor, upon discovering late last week that the Web domain of the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents was registered to CARE.

The nonprofit has been a driving force behind several attempts to introduce vouchers in Colorado public schools, which have been defeated partly thanks to opposition from the teachers union.

Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck, a leading voucher advocate and teachers union critic, is among CARE's board members.

Moreover, the incorporation papers for the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents, which attorney Hall filed with the Colorado secretary of state last month, list an address for the group that happens to match Njegomir's home address in Denver.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, Deb Fallin, said she's received anecdotal evidence that radio ads for the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents were paid for by CARE.

Case closed? Not according to Njegomir.

"We don't have anything to do with that," Njegomir insisted when asked about the campaign. "That's not our campaign."

Told that the campaign's Web site was registered to CARE, Njegomir said someone might have "misappropriated" the group's name.

As for the organization being registered at his home address, "That's just plain weird," he said.

However, Njegomir, who lives in a large condominium complex near the state Capitol in Denver, said a number of political operatives live in his building and could, in theory, be involved. The address for the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents doesn't include a unit number.

A big mystery

The man who would seem to have the answers is Hall, the attorney. But Hall won't talk.

"I can't comment on my clients," he said.

Attorneys are often paid to file incorporation papers on behalf of organizations and businesses. Hall himself is a staunch voucher proponent and has assisted legislators with voucher proposals, but he refused to say whether he is personally involved in the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents.

The membership section of the group's incorporation papers simply states that the group "shall have no members."

Fallin, of the teachers union, says she believes the billboard and ad campaign is a direct response to a recent advertising blitz by the union. The organization recently sent out mass mailings asking people to visit a Web site, www.coloradopublicschools.org, where the union calls attention to what it says is an effort to privatize public schools, backed by a handful of wealthy voucher proponents.

"We expected some pushback," Fallin said.

The union's Web site has subsequently inspired a parody site, the similarly named www.coloradopublicschool.org, which uses misspelled words to mock the union. The parody site contains a link to the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents Web site.

The parody site is registered to what appears to be a Web development company called Contemporary Networks, based in Denver. Efforts to contact the company were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, by Tuesday, the domain registration for www.changecoloradoeducation.org had been changed. The domain is now registered to the Society of Independent Teachers and Parents.

-- Terje Langeland

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