Douglas County Educational Foundation director Jason Christensen is aware of historic concerns about the organization's involvement in the 2013 school board election. Under his direction and a newly created strategic plan, the DCEF has no intention …
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Douglas County Educational Foundation director Jason Christensen is aware of historic concerns about the organization's involvement in the 2013 school board election. Under his direction and a newly created strategic plan, the DCEF has no intention of following a similar path.
“We don't have any plans for speakers; we're classroom-focused,” Christensen said.
The DCEF paid $50,000 to former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett for a September 2013 speech and white paper in which he praised the reform efforts. The speech was given just weeks before the contentious election during which a slate of four reform-friendly candidates were elected to the board.
Additionally, a judge ruled in December 2014 that the Douglas County School District violated the state's Fair Campaign Practices Act by using district funds to pay for a September 2013 report complimenting its reforms. Half of the money used to pay for Rick Hess' white paper — “The Most Interesting School District in America?” — came from DCSD, the other half from the DCEF.
The school district is appealing the ruling. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 10.
The 2013 pre-election activities also prompted three Douglas County residents to file complaints with the Internal Revenue Service alleging improper behavior by the DCEF.
Because the IRS cannot disclose the results of an investigation, or even whether it's initiated an investigation, Susan Arnold, Meg Masten and Bob Kaser never learned the outcome of their complaints.
Former DCSD community relations officer Cinamon Watson, formerly a Republican political campaign consultant, was then acting as the foundation's interim director. She left the district in September 2014 “to pursue new opportunities,” according to DCSD.
Christensen wants to ensure the foundation's good work stays center stage.
“I believe what gets lost in this so-called controversy is the fact that the Douglas County Educational Foundation hasprovided tens of thousands of dollars on classroom technology and experiential learning,” he said.
The foundation board decided during a recent strategic planning session to focus on classroom innovation, private/public sector partnerships, and the impact on the future workforce.
“As we've transitioned into an information age and economy, the nature of education is evolving,” Christensen said. “In order to remain competitive in a global economy we have to not just keep up, we must be progressively ahead.
“Our funding priorities in the coming years will have an emphasis on STEM-related items (science, technology, engineering, and math). Douglas County is home to major technology/manufacturing firms, and DCEF wants to be a community partner in developing an educated and prepared workforce.”
Arnold believes the impact of those alleged improprieties lingers.
“There is clear evidence that the district had a political operative leading the DCEF and used the foundation as a political slush fund,” she said. “It is going to take more than new leadership at DCEF to restore public trust.
“At a time when the district is being more vocal about their capital needs, it's truly a shame that the foundation's credibility is so tarnished, because it could play a vital role in offsetting some of those needs.”
DCEF legal counsel Jon Anderson said his firm reviewed the foundation's activities regarding Bennett's report, and concluded it didn't meet the IRS definition for political activity.
Kaser — a former DCEF chairman — said his concerns have largely been addressed. Those included production of an annual report and conflict-of-interest policy.
Masten declined to comment.
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