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Business groups backtrack on letter seeking money for pro-voucher candidates

Three of Colorado Springs' most powerful business groups are scheming to support and help elect pro-voucher candidates to local school boards, a letter recently sent out by the groups suggests.

But now, leaders of two of the business groups are backing away from much of the letter's message, saying their organizations are not pushing any specific education reforms and have not taken a position for or against school vouchers.

In the letter, sent out in April, the Chamber of Commerce, the Housing and Building Association and the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors ask their members to contribute money to a new political action committee, titled Citizens for Student Achievement and Progress, which aims to support pro-voucher school board candidates in El Paso County.

Some of the money, the letter states, will be used to pay off the campaign debts of the four pro-voucher candidates who seized control over the seven-member Colorado Springs District 11 School Board last fall -- Sandy Shakes, Craig Cox, Willie Breazell and Eric Christen.

The rest will be used to "assist other like minded candidates and education reform initiatiaves [sic] in El Paso County in the future."

The letter gives high praise to Shakes, Cox, Breazell and Christen, calling them "dedicated, courageous, independent."

In addition to record-breaking donations from wealthy voucher backers, the four candidates also received campaign contributions last fall from many local real-estate developers and homebuilders.

"Our organizations were proud to endorse these candidates," the letter states. "They reflect our values."

Agenda denied

The letter carries the signatures of Renee Zentz, vice president of the Housing and Building Association; Will Temby, president and CEO of the Chamber; and Terry Storm, CEO of the realtors association.

However, in interviews, Temby and Storm both insisted their organizations aren't backing any specific education agenda. Zentz could not be reached for comment.

In fact, Temby said he had been under the "misperception" that the money raised through the letter would be used exclusively to pay off candidates' campaign debts.

The Chamber is committed to helping pay off the debts of political candidates it has endorsed, he explained.

The campaign debts of Shakes, Cox, Breazell and Christen total about $8,000, according to the letter.

"It was my understanding that it would just go toward campaign debt," Temby said of the fund-raising appeal. Asked if the letter's support for education reform went further than he had intended, Temby answered, "Candidly, yes."

Storm, likewise, said his organization's intent was simply to help pay off candidates' debts. "It didn't go any further than that," he said.

Leadership potential

While the business groups endorsed Shakes, Cox, Breazell and Christen last fall, Temby said the Chamber didn't base its backing on the candidates' positions on vouchers.

"Our education committee wanted to look at candidates who we felt had some leadership potential -- without necessarily subscribing to their entire body of work or doctrine," he said.

The Chamber endorses school board candidates with philosophies "across the spectrum," Temby said.

The four new school board members have been controversial. They were elected with major financial backing from wealthy voucher supporters in Denver, in a campaign that included anonymous attack advertisements against their opponents.

Upon taking office, the four newcomers sidelined the three already sitting, more experienced board members, and elected themselves to all of the board's leadership positions.

"The Chamber doesn't subscribe to any polarized activities of any of the candidates -- if they're disenfranchising their peers or whatever," Temby said.

Storm said he didn't know what criteria the realtors association's endorsements were based upon, because he didn't personally participate in the endorsement process.

End of the action

Conflicting with Temby and Storm's insistence that their groups aren't backing any specific education agenda, the letter bearing both of their signatures explicitly praises the new D-11 board's "exciting student centered reforms."

Among the reforms singled out in the letter is a drive to shift responsibility and resources from the central district administration to individual schools in the district.

Temby said Chamber representatives have discussed the decentralization concept with D-11 Superintendent Norm Ridder and believe it might lead to improved student performance.

Storm, however, wouldn't even go that far.

"We have no position on that," Storm said. "That's just to give people that might want to contribute some indication of what's going on. And they can make their own decision on that. We haven't."

Temby repeatedly pledged that the Chamber would not be involved in future campaigns for or against school vouchers.

"That letter is the end of our action," he said of the recent fund-raising appeal. "I cannot be more emphatic about that."

-- Terje Langeland

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