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Teachers unions played major role in recall effort

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Sizable donations revealed; source of conservative side’s funding remains unknown

By Gabrielle Porter

 Local and national teachers unions made major donations to the campaign to recall three conservative members of the Jeffco school board, according to financial records ordered released by a state judge.

Recall critics have said donations from the National Education Association and the Jefferson County Education Association prove that union interests were a guiding force in the ousting of board members John Newkirk, Ken Witt and Julie Williams in the November election.

According to newly released financial records, the NEA gave $150,000 to recall support group Jeffco United in 2015. The JCEA gave $20,000 on top of the previously disclosed $15,000 it gave through its small-donation committee arm, and other contributions it made to individual successor candidates’ campaigns.

Recall opponent Sheila Atwell, who runs advocacy group Jeffco Students First, said the revelations deal a blow to recall organizers’ claim that unions weren’t driving the election.

“We were not surprised by the revelation at all,” Atwell said in an e-mail. “We have been noting union involvement since 2014.”

Atwell said that before Jeffco United’s donors were disclosed, a sign of the JCEA’s involvement was in the recall group’s hiring of Lynea Hansen. Hansen, Colorado senior vice president of Seattle-based communications firm Strategies 360, was a spokeswoman for the JCEA until recall efforts were launched. For the past six months, she has handled communications for the groups leading the recall efforts.

Recall supporters, however, have said that union money was solicited to help level a playing field where conservatives were supported by major funding from state and national interest groups.

Hansen said financial support for Newkirk, Witt and Williams from groups like the Independence Institute and Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity — funds that have not been disclosed — made asking for union donations a necessity.

“The most important thing to remember is that just because the (union) was a funder does not mean they led the recall,” Hansen said in an e-mail. “This recall was led by Jeffco parents, but they were never going to be able to come up with enough funding to match all of the Koch money coming in. So, we asked for and received support from the association.”

Jeffco United’s donors were made public after an administrative judge in December ordered the group to register as an issue committee and disclose its donors, since its “major purpose” was supporting the recall. The decision by Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer stemmed from a complaint filed by the Colorado Springs-based watchdog group Colorado Government Watch.

While Jeffco United opted not to appeal Spencer’s decision, Hansen said she doesn’t agree with his ruling.

“(Jeffco United) was used to educate people in Jeffco about what was going on in their schools before there was ever a recall, and we also did an extensive amount of (get-out-the-vote) work,” Hansen said. “The dollars we spent asking people to vote yes on the recall was a small amount of the work we did.”

According to secretary of state records, Indian Hills parent Wendy McCord filed paperwork May 1 to incorporate Jeffco United. The recall push launched about seven weeks later, after McCord and two other Jeffco residents filed petitions to recall the three conservative board members.

Some funds still undisclosed

Despite Jeffco United’s revelations, some funds that went into the campaign remain undisclosed.

On the incumbents’ side, several local television stations and Comcast aired ads featuring incumbent Julie Williams that were paid for by a 501(c)4 nonprofit called Colorado Independent Action. That group, which is affiliated with the free-market think tank Independence Institute, avoided disclosing financing of the Williams ads by not mentioning the campaign in the spots.

Americans for Prosperity, an organization run by the well-known conservative billionaire Koch brothers, also spent more than $70,000 on Comcast ads in the South Jeffco area, although public records don’t clarify whether all the funds were spent on anti-recall advertisements.

Kids are First Jeffco, a nonprofit that also supported the conservatives, spent $24,000 on Comcast ads, according to contracts published by Colorado Ethics Watch.

On the pro-recall side, the origin of $6,000 donated to advocacy group Support Jeffco Kids also remains undisclosed through the secretary of state.

The group was named in the complaint filed by Colorado Government Watch along with Jeffco United. However, Spencer decided there wasn’t enough evidence to support the accusation that Support Jeffco Kids mainly existed to support the recall. He pointed to the fact that the group has existed since early 2014 — long before talk about a recall arose — and that it has been involved in many different educational causes.

While Support Jeffco Kids is not required to file as an issue committee, the group released some information about its donors on its website in late December, including that its average donation amount was $22.

Background

Newkirk, Witt and Williams turned the district on its head during their two years controlling the five-member school board, which has historically been dominated by liberals. In the first year, the trio made waves by linking teacher pay to performance evaluations, and by entertaining a proposal from Williams to form a committee to review Advanced Placement U.S. history courses to make them more patriotic and to de-emphasize dissent.

In 2015, the trio irked the JCEA by insisting on a 10-month contract rather than the four-year pacts the teachers union had secured in the past. The contract also included a 1 percent cost-of-living raise for all teachers, which union representatives and liberal board members criticized as too low.

In another move knocked by liberals as politically expedient but hailed by conservatives as fiscally responsible, Newkirk, Witt and Williams delayed major building projects that district staff said were necessary to meet projected growth in parts of the district. The three agreed to spend money left over from the previous year’s budget on a new school but didn’t address other items on the district’s list of building needs.

Last June, three Jeffco parents filed paperwork seeking to recall the three conservative board members for what they said was a lack of accountability, transparency and respect. Complicating matters, both liberal members of the board, Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, were up for re-election in November at the end of their regular terms — and both decided not to run. Eventually 13 people, including Newkirk, Witt and Williams, were vying for the board’s five seats.   

On Nov. 3, the five candidates supported as a slate by recall organizers were overwhelmingly elected, and on Nov. 19 Ron Mitchell, Ali Lasell, Susan Harmon, Amanda Stevens and Brad Rupert were sworn into office.

The new board members are still settling into their roles but have already broached topics such as funding for facilities and might consider authorizing a bonus for district employees from the money originally earmarked by the conservative board for one school’s construction.

Contact Gabrielle Porter at gabrielle@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1042.