The 2021 Denver school board campaign will be over soon, and to date, only an independent expenditure committee tied to national, state, and local teachers unions has chosen to go negative.
New campaign filings show that Students Deserve Better has raked in $384,000 in donations from a Colorado Education Association Political Action Committee ($257,000), and its affiliates in Denver ($75,000), Aurora ($27,000), and Fort Collins ($25,000).
In Denver, that money has gone to sending targeted mailers to voters in the three local (district) races and the citywide at-large race.
The mailers make claims of dubious accuracy that attempt to cast non-union candidates in as negative a light as possible. I wonder how teachers who pay union dues feel about their hard-earned money going to fund such sleazy stuff.
It didn’t take me long to find one outright falsehood in the mailer that came to my home. The postcard promotes at-large candidate Scott Esserman, but uses half its real estate throwing stones at one of Esserman’s opponents, Vernon Jones, Jr.
One of the claims against Jones is that he “supports having more unlicensed teachers for students, creating greater inequity.”
According to a footnote in the mailer, this refers to a waiver from state statute requested by the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone from the State Board of Education in 2018, when the zone was created.
There are two glaring problems here. The first is that Jones was not working for the zone in 2018, so had nothing to do with the waiver.
The second issue is that Esserman was part of the committee of parents and teachers who wrote the 2015 innovation plan for Northfield High School. And guess what? That plan includes a waiver of that exact same statute, the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act of 1990, Section 22-63- 201.
Northfield’s plan stated that “Northfield High School teachers will include teaching personnel who are licensed by the CDE as well as teaching personnel who are not licensed and are providing instruction in non-core classes.”
So Students Deserve Better is blasting Jones for something he didn’t do, but that Esserman in fact played a part in at a different school: hiring unlicensed teachers.
Someone didn’t do their homework!
Whatever your opinion of “dark money” in political campaigns and the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that opened the door to the practice, just about everyone in electoral politics now benefits from spending by murky committees not affiliated with candidates. In Denver school board races, union-backed and non-union-backed candidates are receiving support from independent expenditure committees.
But only one side is playing dirty. And you know what’s wrong with what they’re doing? They’re showing utter contempt for the voters they are courting. They are banking on people being so ignorant and disengaged that they’ll read false claims on a piece of junk mail and use that disinformation to choose for whom they’ll vote.
Unfortunately, this cynical ploy could work, since many voters pay little attention to school board races.
But even as Students Deserve Better is spreading falsehoods, its enablers are playing holier than thou and sounding the alarm about dark money being spent by “the other side.”
The inimitable Jeanne Kaplan, a former DPS board member, publishes a blog called “Kaplan 4 Kids.” In a breathless post dated Oct. 8, she decries the dark money being spent by committees with which she disagrees:
“...in spite of the warm and fuzzy names attached to these rather insidious committees — family, parents, teacher, students, excellent schools, great education, etc. — it is rather disconcerting to see all this DARK MONEY going into buying our school board AGAIN…”
Never mind that the CEA-connected committee has spent almost the same amount as these other committees combined. Never mind that the other committees are sending out mailers supporting candidates without tearing down others. Kaplan conveniently ignores these inconvenient truths.
In Denver, our debased national political culture has now bled down into the most local of contests — school board races.
And it’s worth remembering that only the union-backed committee is spreading fake news.
Alan Gottlieb is editor of Denver-based public education watchdog boardhawk.org, where this commentary first appeared and is available online. Gottlieb covered Denver Public Schools as a newspaper reporter in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat.