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Dark money from billionaire out-of-state donors has made its way back into Denver school board races

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Posted at 9:45 PM, Nov 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-10 18:04:56-05

DENVER — "Dark money" is pouring into the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education election yet again.

Open Secrets defines dark money as "spending meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed." Companies and political nonprofits often aren’t required to disclose their donors, who funnel large amounts of money into campaigns. Hard money, on the other hand, refers to traditional political spending. Candidate committees, Political Action Committies (PACs) and political parties are required to disclose their donors.

Dark money used to only be seen in national elections, but has slowly made its way into local ballot boxes, causing concern among candidates and watchdog groups.

“It’s disappointing, but it also really makes me angry,” said Jane Shirley, who has worked in education for more than 20 years and has previously run for a school board position.

“The biggest problem is — we don’t know where the money is coming from,” said Kwame Spearman, who is running for the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education at-large seat.

The biggest spender in this year’s race is an independent expenditure committee (IEC) called Better Leaders, Stronger Schools. It is funded largely by Denver Families Action, a political nonprofit that has a large backing of national charter school networks and works to elect candidates who support charters.

Spokespersons for both Better Leaders, Stronger Schools and Denver Families Action are unapologetic about the amount of spending in Denver.

“Frankly, what we’ve seen at this point is a lack of trust,” said Clarence Burton, Jr., CEO of Denver Families Action. “It is broken trust is what I would call it, between community and the board of education.”

“What I know is that the current board has not gotten the job done,” said Daniel Aschkinasi, registered agent for Better Leaders, Stronger Schools. “And it’s evidenced by how often they’ve been in the news for the wrong reasons this year.”

Pro-charter outside money is outspending the local teacher’s union by about 4:1 this election cycle. Some argue the money is all about privatizing local school districts.

“When we’re talking privatization, it really is about removing local control,” Shirley said. “Part of the agenda across the country has been to push school choice and the growth of charters, which are also taking public money, but are privately managed by appointed boards and outsourcing transportation, paraprofessionals, curriculum and so forth. School choice is an illusion. It only works for the people it works for. It truly is code for segregation.”

Dark money poured into the 2019 DPS Board of Education race.

“Candidates whose campaigns were funded and driven and then agendized by outside corporate interests,” said Brad Laurvick, who won in District 5 in 2019.

“This dark money, that’s problematic,” said Julie Banuelos, who also ran in District 5 in 2019. “That’s not really our values.”

Dark money organizations often benefit from unlimited donations from corporations, wealthy individuals and others who have no real link to the races they are trying to influence.

The organizations send out mailers and make calls on behalf of candidates. Once the candidate gets elected, the expectation is they support the agenda of the corporation.

Here’s an example of how it’s connected to this year’s DPS school board races. In the at-large race, one candidate has dropped out, leaving three left — John Youngquist, Kwame Spearman and Brittni Johnston. But only one appears to be benefiting from this money – Youngquist.

Better Leaders, Stronger Schools has spent more than $1 million on behalf of Youngquist. The flier generating the most headlines is a negative mailer targeting at-large candidate Kwame Spearman, calling him a bully.

“$80,000 was spent on this mailer that went all throughout Denver, which it’s entire focus was negative personal attacks about me, which I think many interpreted to be a dog whistle for racism,” Spearman said.

The mailer features a shadowed photo of Spearman on one side.

“And then on the other side of the mailer, the only image was of a white child who was seemingly crying,” Spearman explained.

“When we’re talking a school board race, it does give you pause to think — why don’t you focus on your candidate’s qualifications?” Shirley said. “Why are you having to go after and try to discredit the other side? I do think people see through it. These folks have never been in our public schools. They don’t actually care about our schools. Why are they putting so much money into these races? And what are they expecting of their candidates in return?”

“We’re a committee that’s put together to invest and support candidates who support the new future of DPS,” said Aschkinasi. “And I think the character of the candidate running at-large that you’re referring to is well-documented. And my job is to bring the politics here. This is an election. I need to get as many voters out to vote for these candidates as possible. And my way of doing that is by demonstrating that there are some candidates out there who do not represent the values of Denver at-large. And there are three amazing candidates out there who are widely supported by other leaders in this city.”

Denver Families Action was established in December 2020 and has received a large amount of national funding from billionaire donors in order to canvass neighborhoods and engage voters who otherwise might not show up at the polls.

“Unfortunately, only 1 in 4 eligible voters in Denver historically participates in school board elections, which is just incredibly low,” said Burton, Jr.

Denver Families Action receives its funding from The City Fund, a national education organization that promotes increasing charter school access and school choice programs, according to Influence Watch.

“When you have elections and the stakes are high, it’s going to draw in resources,” Burton, Jr. said.

“I support DPS,” Aschkinasi said. “DPS has an ecosystem of choice, which has charter schools that are public and has traditional schools. John Youngquist, Marlene De La Rosa, and Kimberlee Sia make up 60 years of education experience — a lot of that here in DPS.”

“I want to see a board that is not sort of tied by dysfunction,” Aschkinasi said.

“We can, as a community, begin to say, 'We’re not playing the game that way anymore,'” Shirley said.

“We know that what voters want is to remove politics from our school board,” Spearman said. “Dark money groups are trying to do the exact opposite while we choose to keep it positive.”

The campaigns for Youngquist and Johnson did not respond to Denver7's interview and comment requests.

Editor's Note:

Editor's Note: The term "voucher" does not imply Denver Families Action supports students moving from public schools to private schools with a "voucher." Denver Families Action says it "unequivocally opposes" those types of vouchers.