Douglas County Schools

District files notice to appeal election ruling

School leaders say decision could limit communication with public


When a judge ruled that the Douglas County School District violated campaign-finance law in the lead-up to the November school board race, the decision left the board intact and the district was not fined for its actions.

But DCSD has moved to have the ruling overturned, saying if left to stand, the decision would severely limit its ability to communicate with the public. On Feb. 13 — just inside the 49-day window open for it to do so — the school district filed a notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

The filing is short on details, but notes an appeal may question if the Administrative Court erred when it found DCSD's pre-election distribution of a district-financed report constituted a contribution to the reform candidates' slate.

Those four candidates, including incumbents Doug Benevento and Meghann Silverthorn, and newcomers Judi Reynolds and Jim Geddes, won the Nov. 5 election.

DCSD so far has paid more than $62,500 to the law firm representing it in the case.

Unsuccessful school board candidate Julie Keim filed the case in October, alleging the district violated the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act and attempted to influence the outcome of the election in several instances. In a Dec. 24 ruling, Judge Hollyce Farrell agreed with her on one of the points — which Keim said was the central issue.

The use of district funds to pay for a September 2013 report praising DCSD's reforms was the equivalent of a contribution to the four reform-slate candidates, Farrell ruled, because many of those who received it were potential voters in the November school board election.

The judge did not levy a fine because Keim did not request one.

District officials said in late December they would not only appeal, but seek to have their legal costs covered. The most recent statement, issued Feb. 14, does not mention pursuing legal costs.

“The Administrative Law Judge seems to have concluded that it is unlawful for the district ever to disseminate positive news involving its education policy if there also are candidates running for school board, or who may even run in the future, who happen to be pleased by that policy,” reads the email attributed to Douglas County School Board President Kevin Larsen. “The district does not agree with the Administrative Law Judge and believes her ruling is simply inconsistent with the law of Colorado.”

The ruling would limit or “even silence” the school district's ability to communicate with the community about important policy matters for “extensive periods before, during and after school board elections,” the statement continued.

“We believe the Administrative Law Judge's ruling, if left to stand, would effectively muzzle our school district and all public bodies from undertaking appropriate, meaningful communication with the relevant community, now and in the future, unrelated to any specific candidate or campaign.”

Keim said she's disappointed in DCSD's notice of appeal.

“But I'm not surprised,” she said. “I just think once again they put their own self-interest and egos ahead of taxpayers and students.

“Public institutions should be able to disseminate unbiased information. However, the district's actions went over the line and violated (the campaign act). I believe the judge's ruling says it best: `The Hess Report was not a third-party, unbiased study' and `The Hess Report was purchased with public money to influence the outcome of the Board election.' ”

The report titled, “The Most Interesting School District in America?” was written as part of a DCSD contract with Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. The district emailed 85,000 community members about the “just-released white paper” in mid-September, and did not identify it as a district-paid product.

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Just where exactly is all this money coming from to pay these legal bills? I understand that the first round of the lawsuit was not the choice of the district but appealing the ruling is spending money we simply don't have. The current infrastructure of DCSD is failing students and parents are paying for more and more basic essentials for schools. It is the responsibility of the BOE to represent its constituents and their tax dollars. This appeal does not represent responsible leadership. As Ms. Keim says, "...once again they put their own self interest and egos ahead of taxpayers and student."

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