With Big Spending on School Board Races, A State Lawmaker Seeks to Cap Contributions

The Colorado state Capitol, in Denver.

The Colorado state Capitol, in Denver. Shutterstock

 

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Colorado currently does not have any limits in place for individual donors giving money to local school board candidates.

In Colorado, some local school board elections have been flooded with cash in recent years, as hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions poured in and independent expenditure committees spent big. 

State Rep. Emily Sirota, a Democrat who represents a district in the Denver area, finds the influx of money into these races troubling. 

“It just is so obvious how out of control these contributions are,” she told Route Fifty on Tuesday. “We're talking about the school board,” she added, “this very local, unpaid, volunteer position, that we see people getting contributions in 10 and 20 thousand dollar increments.”

A bill that Sirota is now pushing in the state legislature seeks to restrain some of this spending. It would cap the total contribution amount that individual donors can make to school board candidates during the course of an election at $2,500.

The bill would also impose a limit of $25,000 on groups known as small donor committees, which would work out to at least 500 people donating $50 Sirota recently said in a hearing.

These limits are in line with a new law that Sirota backed last year that set contribution caps for county candidates. Similarly, contributions to candidates for state and municipal elected offices are subject to limits.

School board contests are one of the last remaining types of elections in Colorado where there are no restrictions in place for how much money a person can contribute to a candidate.

“We are trying to bring school board in line with other races in the state,” Sirota said.

Similar proposals have failed in past years. But Sirota’s legislation has made some progress. It cleared the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee last week on a 7-2 vote, with two Republicans opposed, and has been forwarded on to the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill would not restrict self-funded spending by candidates on their own campaigns. And under the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the state is powerless to impose spending limits on independent expenditure committees. 

Independent expenditures can involve money from companies, unions, and individuals. The money can be spent to advocate for the defeat or election of candidates. But independent expenditure groups are not supposed to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

Both large individual donations and sizable committee spending have played a role in recent Colorado school board elections.

Denver offers one example. Last year, 11 candidates ran for three school board seats. They spent a combined total of roughly $1.1 million, state campaign finance records show.

That sum does not include independent expenditures and spending by small donor committees, which totaled at least around $787,500 in mid-October, in the weeks before last November’s election, according to an article that Chalkbeat Colorado published around that time.

In 2017, ColoradoPolitics.com reported that spending on a school board election in Douglas County, located south of Denver, reached a total that was at least just shy of $1 million. Charter schools, vouchers and teacher performance were some of the top issues in the Douglas County race and other Colorado school board elections that year.

When Sirota’s bill had its committee hearing last week, nine people signed up to testify on it—all of them in support.

One of the proponents was Valentina Flores, who sits on the state board of education but testified on her own behalf. “When local districts such as Denver Public Schools have people running on way over $100,000,” she said, “it just doesn't seem fair.”

The shift toward bigger dollar spending on local school board races is not unique to Colorado.

“National reform donors and competing national interest groups are transforming dozens of local school board elections into major electoral battlegrounds,” Jeffrey Henig, Rebecca Jacobsen and Sarah Reckhow write in their 2019 book “Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics."

No fewer than 43 localities appear to have had at least one school board election featuring outside money between 2009 and the fall of 2017, the book says. A 2017 school board contest in San Diego County, California attracted donors like media mogul Michael Bloomberg, Walmart fortune heir Alice Walton, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, the authors note.

Conservative groups that advocate for smaller government, like Americans for Prosperity, along with labor unions, have also pumped money toward various school board races in recent years.

The book authors argue that the increasing “nationalization” of local school board races “reflects a growing realization on the part of national political actors that local arenas continue to be important as sites for agenda setting and political engagement.”

Whatever the case may be, Sirota's view is that many Americans are growing weary of the amounts of money coursing through elections at all levels of government. "I think it's so very clear the disdain and disgust that so many average citizens and voters have about money in politics,” she said, “and their belief that politicians, whoever they are, are just bought off to whoever is willing to finance their campaign.” 

“That's true for everyone, from the president on down to the school board,” Sirota added.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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