Variety of groups joining school fray

Heated board election draws heavy involvement

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At least five committees that identify themselves as community-based are entrenched in campaign efforts for the November Douglas County School Board election.

The groups, registered with the Colorado Secretary of State, are working on both sides of the controversial issues. Some advocate for a continuation of the current board’s education reform efforts, and others support the election of candidates with a different perspective.

In their efforts to educate the public, the groups occasionally cross paths. Attendees at a recent Douglas County high school football game found fliers on their vehicles’ windshields endorsing both sets of candidates when DougCo Champions for Kids and Douglas County Parents covered the same event.

But their techniques vary from moms pounding the pavement and holding signs at rallies to paid solicitors knocking on doors and the production of full-color newspaper advertisements and television commercials. Sources of funding for all the groups are not accessible. While the five entities are registered with the Colorado Secretary of State, the form under which each committee files dictates whether it must reveal financial details.

The pro-board DougCo Champions for Kids is listed as both an unincorporated nonprofit, and as the other name of a corporation called C3 Solutions. Texas-based C3 Solutions is registered as a paid solicitor intending to use direct mail, Internet, door-to-door and telephone solicitations in Colorado.  

Some of DougCo Champions for Kids’ funding also comes from the Denver-based libertarian Independence Institute. Two of C3 Solutions’ officers, Mike Krause and Damon Sasso, work for the institute.

Sasso said during a recent television interview that DougCo Champions is a coalition of grassroots organizations, including Great Choice Douglas County and DougCo Parent Alliance. Both favor the current board.

Volunteer pitches in

Douglas County parent Franceen Thompson said she is an unpaid volunteer for DougCo Champions.

“I don’t receive a nickel,” said Thompson, employed as a contractor with Mindbank. “I spend my own money for gas. I make fliers.

“I believe in what they stand for and that’s why I volunteer for them. We like pay-for-performance, school choice and the choice scholarship program. We think those are good reforms. I do my best to help educate parents on the options that are out there for their kids because I just want all kids to get the best education for them.”

The Douglas County Education Alliance (DCEA), which broadcasts a repeated anti-teachers’ union message in its advertisements and Facebook page messages, lists former Castle Rock Mayor Randy Reed as its registered agent. Reed was a March 2012 finalist for the open school board seat awarded to Carrie Mendoza.

However, the domain name associated with DCEA’s “www.studentsnotunions.com” website originally could be traced to DC-London.

DC-London is an Arizona-based consulting firm specializing in campaign and grassroots management, message development and lobbying. It was founded by Sean Noble, a Republican campaign adviser with ties to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers are known for their support of conservative and libertarian groups and causes.

The registration since has been changed to link to Domains by Proxy, a domain name privacy service.

Reed did not return calls requesting comment on DCEA.

Founders of three groups that support a change on the school board and oppose many of the district’s education reform-related policies and changes say they are funded by volunteers and donations.

Strong Schools Coalition, registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, shows contributions in 2012 of about $2,500 and expenditures of about $2,000. To date in 2013, president Laura Mutton said donations stand at about $4,000.

“We do it on shoestring budget,” said Mutton, who describes her involvement with Strong School as a full-time job. “We solicit donations primarily from our members or anyone who comes to our website. We do not pay any third-party vendors to do work for us.”

Mutton is a software designer and Douglas County parent whose interest in school issues was piqued while serving on a school accountability committee.

“I really think that what this boils down to for me is the issue of trust,” she said. “By running an organization that publishes factual and complete information, I hope to hold our district accountable and restore the trust to the public.”

Group self-funded

Douglas County Parents, registered as a political committee, is self-funded, according to board member Laura Welch.

“When we needed money for a booth at the Douglas County Fair, several of us stood around in a circle and threw money in the middle of the floor,” said Welch.

Welch shares board duties with Susan Meek, a former DCSD spokeswoman working to promote the challenger candidates, and parent Trisha McCombs, who writes a blog critical of the district.

“It seems like this is a very politically motivated school board and they’re not doing what’s best for kids,” Welch said. “Even the good ideas are pushed through half-done on teachers and students, and are not fully developed.”

Taxpayers for Public Education president Cindy Barnard said the bulk of its donations support its lawsuit against DCSD’s voucher program.

“All our donations are from Douglas County residents,” she said. “The largest check was $500. I haven’t received funding from anywhere else.”

Barnard objects to the use of public money in private schools, and to many other recent changes the current board counts as positive change.

“They’ve divided a community,” she said. “The teacher evaluation and pay plan has major flaws. If they’re talking about the voucher program, that never has gotten started. And then you have academics that are showing trends downward. Show me what’s been successful.”