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Secretive groups funnel donations into school board elections

click to enlarge From left: D-11 candidates Bob Lathen, Carla Albers and - Reginald Perry.
  • From left: D-11 candidates Bob Lathen, Carla Albers and Reginald Perry.

Backed by wealthy individuals, outside special interest groups -- including an organization that last year spent millions of dollars to support "school choice" politicians across the nation -- have set their sights on upcoming school board elections in Colorado Springs.

In School District 11, the city's largest, hundreds of thousands of dollars already have poured in and are being spent on an onslaught of TV and radio advertisements and slick campaign mailings.

"It's a whole new world," says Marguerite Duncan, a longtime county election official.

The unprecedented largesse shatters a fund-raising record set only two years ago, when a group of rich businessmen led by local developer Steve Schuck funneled vast amounts of cash into the coffers of candidates who supported "school choice" -- a euphemism for private school vouchers and increased use of charter schools. One of the candidates, Eric Christen, who now serves on the D-11 board, has said that those backers spent more than $150,000 on the 2003 race.

Most of the money raised this time around probably won't be reported to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's office, which traditionally receives campaign-finance filings in local school board races.

Rather, the outside groups, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, are reporting to state election officials and the Internal Revenue Service. Early voting already is underway, and the groups conceivably could wait until less than 48 hours before Election Day, Nov. 1, to disclose their backers, under state rules.

One group, called Parents Targeting Achievement (PTA), is claiming a reporting exemption under federal tax law that could allow it to keep its finances and supporters' identities permanently concealed.

Who's in the mailbox?

The interest groups appear to be working independently of the six candidates battling for three D-11 seats in the Nov. 1 election.

Three candidates running as a slate, Carla Albers, Bob Lathen and Reginald Perry, appear to be supported by Parents Targeting Achievement (PTA), based in Denver, and another Denver organization, All Children Matter-Colorado.

The three other candidates, also running as a slate, include John Gudvangen, Tami Hasling and Sandra Mann. They are being backed by a group called Rally in Support of Education (RISE), which has a Colorado Springs address.

On their own, the six so far have raised a total of about $60,000 from a range of individual donors, most of them local. All the candidates who spoke with the Independent claimed to have had no contact whatsoever with the outside groups.

"I don't know who they are," Hasling says of RISE.

That group alone had raised $276,000 for the election as of late last week. In a slew of radio and TV advertisements, RISE has stoked fears that opposing forces are bent on privatizing public schools.

Meanwhile, All Children Matter-Colorado, the state affiliate of a national "school choice" campaign, has sent mailers criticizing the current leadership in D-11. Included are blank forms encouraging people to register to vote, and to vote early.

Those two, as well as Parents Targeting Achievement, are called "527s," Internal Revenue Service jargon describing organizations created specifically to receive and disburse funds to influence the outcome of elections.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., elections watchdog group, says 527s tend to be shadowy.

"The critical point is, where is the money coming from?" says Noble. "The game is to hide who the interests are."

Indeed, a spokeswoman for RISE, Cynthia Nimerichter, refused to identify the group's organizers, speaking only generally about its objectives.

click to enlarge From left, D-11 candidates Tami Hasling, John - Gudvangen and Sandra Mann.
  • From left, D-11 candidates Tami Hasling, John Gudvangen and Sandra Mann.

"We're trying to make sure that the public understands when they vote how important it is, and who is supportive of public education," Nimerichter says.

In advertisements, RISE praises D-11 candidates Gudvangen, Hasling and Mann as "public education champions" while labeling Albers, Lathen and Perry as cheerleaders for "public school demolition."

Money from the big dogs

Campaign-finance disclosures for the group show that RISE is funded by just three sources: Denver software mogul Tim Gill, Ken Gart of the Gart Sports family and the state's teachers' union.

Longtime local Republican Party operative Bob Gardner, a spokesman for All Children Matter-Colorado, identified Denver software pioneer and school choice activist Edward McVaney as that group's chairman. However, he refused to discuss the group's activities.

"I'm not prepared to share campaign -- or should I say, issue advocacy -- with the press," says Gardner, who also worked on behalf of pro-voucher candidates in 2003.

As of press time, All Children Matter-Colorado had not yet filed campaign disclosures with election officials, so it is unclear how much that 527 plans to spend on the candidates it supports. Recently, the Gazette reported that Gardner claimed All Children Matter-Colorado is funded primarily by state residents.

That wasn't the case last year.

In 2004, the group spent $1.4 million in hopes of electing "school choice"-friendly candidates in political races across Colorado. Reports filed with the IRS show the group's entire budget came from its parent organization, All Children Matter Inc., headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Wal-Mart heirs Jim and John Walton contributed $6.4 million to the national group. Amway co-founder Richard DeVos also kicked in money, as did Denver businessmen McVaney and Alex Cranberg, both of whom were instrumental in funding winning pro-voucher candidates in the 2003 D-11 board race.

'They really care'

Parents Targeting Achievement's registered agent, Denver-based Republican operative Scott Shires, would not name his group's organizers or discuss its finances. However, Margo Branscomb, identified as its treasurer, also is listed as the marketing director for the Alliance for Choice in Education, an organization founded by Cranberg.

Branscomb did not return phone calls seeking comment. Her PTA group, however, has mailed fliers encouraging early voting in Harrison District 2 that are nearly identical in design to the fliers that All Children Matter-Colorado sent in D-11. Response Technologies Inc., a Denver direct-mail firm, sent both fliers, suggesting that the two groups may be working in tandem.

In terms of traditional local fund-raising, Gudvangen has collected more money than any other candidate, with contributions in excess of $25,000, comprised mostly of small donations from more than 300 backers. The vast majority of donations come from ZIP codes within D-11.

"I think this is indicative of lots of individuals in the community who really care about schools, as opposed to special interests," he says.

Hasling has reported raising more than $14,000 so far, and Mann has reported more than $7,400.

Meanwhile, the campaigns for Albers and Perry, who reported contributions of $4,300 and $1,400, respectively, indicated they haven't fully disclosed all their costs yet, including what they paid for glossy, full-color fliers. Both say they have yet to receive a bill for the materials, which were sent by Response Technologies.

Lathen has mailed out fliers printed by the same company, but has reported raising only $3,400.

Lathen did not return calls seeking an explanation as to why he did not mention printing costs in his recent campaign-finance reports.

-- Michael de Yoanna

and Terje Langeland

  • Secretive groups funnel donations into school board elections

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