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Dark money flows into school board races, but Colorado lawmakers want to stop it

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Posted at 7:32 PM, Feb 04, 2022

COLORADO SPRINGS — School board races were like none other this past election as groups poured over $1 million into campaigns statewide.

The races are typically low profile and low cost, but that wasn't the case last year.

"There were organizations and individuals that had actually donated to every individual who had won between D11, D20, and D49," said Emily Vonachen.

"We were seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars being injected into the race using those methods," said Rob Rogers.

"I think if we had known then what we know now, maybe things would have come to light sooner or the outcomes would be different. Realistically, unless we had tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars to inject into this school board race, I don't think the candidates who were really bi-partisan would have had a real chance in this race," said Lara Matisek.

"Money like that, someone wants something in return for it. It doesn't come without strings," said Bernadette Guthrie.

The group of Academy School District 20 parents created a political committee called "Big Fashion" to combat the flow of dark money in the race.

"The contribution limits for a political position and associated with a party is far lower than it is for a non-partisan position. That right there tells you something has got to change because if we're allowing these huge donors to come in and politicize school board races, there is a problem," said Guthrie.

"There is definitely an obvious effort that is blatant, particularly with the three so-called D20 conservative candidates that won, to defund public education and push charter schools. You have Aaron Salt that is on the D20 school board now, and he was on the school board for New Summit Charter Academy. He was the reason I pulled my daughter from that school because I saw the political ideology and agendas that were being pushed through the curricula and school board. Now that I have my daughter going into the public school system, I kindly reminded him of the oath he took to serve on a public school board," said Matisek. "It's not a fair fight at all going into these school board elections that should be non-partisan, but are being backed with a lot of dark money."

The flow of dark money into the races spurred Rogers to run for House District CO-14.

"That's when I started to really start paying attention to the trends and patterns that were happening within the school board systems across the United States, not just Colorado because this type of thing is happening everywhere," said Rogers.

The most notable spending from the past school board election came from the Colorado Springs political committee, Colorado Springs Forward. They donated $180,000 to an organization called the Springs Opportunity Fund, and public records show Colorado Springs Forward is its sole donor.

The Springs Opportunity Fund spent this money in support of candidates in D11, D20, and D49.

House Bill 1060 would limit individual donations in school board races to $2,500 and donations by small donor committees to $25,000 per candidate.

"Over the last ten years or so, we've seen a massive influx of school board elections into races across the state. Constituents want to know why so much money is being spent on these school board races. Why are people contributing $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 to individuals running for school board. We have limits for almost every other office that someone is running for in the state of Colorado, and this is just a gap that we seek to close," said Emily Sirota, (D) Denver.

She says the caps are higher than those for many other offices.

"It still allows folks to raise the money they need to run a race and communicate their message, but it really just eliminates those outlandish contributions," said Sirota.

While it may not resolve the issue, Sirota says it's a reasonable step toward change.

"We are very limited in the way that we can address dark money in campaign finance reform. We live in post citizens united world where the Supreme Court opened the doors to an influx of dark money into our campaigns. I would like to see federal changes," said Sirota. "We can't limit the dark money that is already being spent in these races, it's already being spent and it's already there, but this is one reasonable step we can take."

"Who you vote for is your choice, but you need to start looking at the connections and motivations," said Vonachen.

The bill passed its first committee on a party-line vote. It now moves on to the appropriations committee where legislators look at the money needed for the bill.