­Think tank helps fund school-board backers

Money comes into play as election approaches

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DougCo Champions for Kids, a pro-Douglas County School Board community group, is getting financial help from the high-profile Independence Institute think tank in the lead-up to the November elections.

DougCo Champions for Kids describes itself as “a group of parents, educators, business people, and taxpayers who want to share the news about what’s really going on in DougCo K-12 education.”

The conservative Independence Institute “agreed to help us cover some minor expenses,” said Franceen Thompson, a volunteer with the group.

DougCo Champions for Kids is registered with the Colorado Secretary of State as an unincorporated nonprofit association. Its registered agent is Mike Krause, the Independence Institute’s vice president of operations.

“I’m the registered agent (but) I’ve had very little to do with the operations,” Krause said in late August, and then said he would ask the staff member who “runs DougCo Champs for Kids” to call Colorado Community Media to answer specific questions. The call was not returned.

The Denver-based Independence Institute is a libertarian think tank currently rallying against the state’s gun-control laws. It also promotes educational vouchers and charter schools. In April 2013, it conducted a phone survey on DCSD issues that some recipients characterized as slanted in favor of the district and against the teachers’ union.

Thompson, also a district captain with the Douglas County Republicans, at first said she didn’t know the details about DougCo Champions’ funding, but later acknowledged the connection to the Independence Institute. Thompson has not responded to a follow-up request for clarification.

‘Champs’ grateful for help

Thompson said some community members who support the current board’s reform policies became concerned last February about the distribution of fliers “spreading misinformation about what was happening in the school district.”

“We did not have the funds to compete and decided to reach out (to) other organizations that might be willing to help our grassroots effort and counter the misinformation … regarding our school district and the reforms our district put into place,” Thompson wrote in an email. “We reached out to the Independence Institute and asked if they would be willing to help us out. We are grateful to the Independence Institute for helping to organize a grassroots effort to get our message to the community.”

Thompson, who supports DCSD’s voucher and new pay-for-performance programs, said she is not paid for her time.

“I put in a ton of hours,” she said. “That tells you how much I believe in what this organization is doing. I don’t care where the funding comes from.”

DougCo Champions has hosted community forums at which current board members have attempted to address community concerns. The organization’s name is on pro-board fliers recently distributed at school events, including a Sept. 6 football game at Douglas County Stadium in Castle Rock.

School board vice president Kevin Larsen said DougCo Champions is not affiliated with the board or district.

“The district has to stay out of the political race,” he said. “Whatever any of those other advocacy groups are doing, they’re doing on their own accord.”

Larsen said he and board member Meghann Silverthorn appeared by invitation at a DougCo Champions community meeting.

“Our showing up at any of those events is simply through accepting an invitation to engage,” he said. “If Taxpayers for Public Education had invited us to be at an event where they wanted to meet the board and ask questions, we would go. We’ve never received any such invitation.”

Taxpayers for Public Education is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against DCSD’s voucher program. 

Campaign manager identifies self

Additionally, Monument-based political consultant Chad Yelinski has identified himself on LinkedIn as a campaign manager for DougCo Champions starting in May 2013. He also lists “Douglas County School Board campaign” as a project that includes coordinating “grassroots effort to help educate citizens in Douglas County on the key issues going on for school reform. Paving the way for advocacy and education.”

Yelinski, who did not respond to multiple attempts to speak with him, describes his role with the DougCo Champions’ campaign on his LinkedIn profile as “gathering data through the use of a precise grassroots strategy to reach a very target group of voters,” working to organize and educate Douglas County citizen groups, building a volunteer base and writing a development plan.

Yelinski’s LinkedIn profile, on the morning of Sept. 12, said he was working as a “political operative” for a company he lists as C3 Political Consulting LLC, where he “organized events and grassroots for DougCo Champs 4 Kids.”

Yelinski recently moved to Washington, D.C. for an internship with the Heritage Foundation, a think tank whose mission is “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

The LinkedIn profile was changed on the afternoon of Sept. 12 after the Heritage Foundation was contacted to verify Yelinski’s activities. The post of “political operative” working with DougCo Champions for Kids, which had been listed as a current job along with his Heritage Foundation internship, was changed to a past job. His “campaign manager” description, which had been listed as continuing into September, has been revised to indicate that it also has come to an end.

Yelinski’s other work experience includes a paid internship with EIS Solutions. That company was a 2011 campaign consultant for Douglas County Citizens for Education Reform, which supported two ultimately unsuccessful school district tax-hike proposals. He also served a 2012 internship with the Starboard Group, which helped coordinate a June 2013 Douglas County Educational Foundation luncheon that drew protesters questioning Starboard’s work with conservative political candidates and groups.