School district to appeal judge’s finding

DCSD found to have violated campaign act with report

By Jane Reuter
Posted

The Douglas County School District will appeal a judge's ruling that it violated the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act and attempted to influence the outcome of the recent school board election.

The ruling was in response to a mid-October complaint filed with the Colorado Secretary of State by unsuccessful school board candidate Julie Keim. She alleged DCSD used district resources to support its preferred candidates, and Administrative Law Judge Hollyce Farrell agreed.

Those four ultimately successful candidates - Doug Benevento, Jim Geddes, Judi Reynolds and Meghann Silverthorn - support the school district's education-reform policies.

Farrell's finding of a violation applied to only one of several claims - a district-financed report praising the reforms that was emailed to potential voters - that Keim's attorney presented during two days of testimony. But the former candidate said it was the key piece of evidence.

"We were really looking for the finding on that report, because that was the direct connection of using taxpayer resources to finance a political agenda," Keim said, saying the other instances showed a pattern of poor behavior. "We're just trying to make sure election law is followed and public dollars aren't used for political purposes. Really, elections should be based on what is true and accurate not what is portrayed by a political ideology."

In an emailed statement, DCSD leaders said they disagree with the judge's interpretation of the law, noting the ruling applied to only one of several claims.
"In the lone claim in which the Administrative Law Judge found a violation, the district respectfully disagrees and will immediately appeal," reads the statement sent by a DCSD spokeswoman and attributed to school board president Kevin Larsen. "The judge seems to have concluded that it is a violation of law anytime the district disseminates positive news involving its education policy agenda if there are also candidates for school board who support that agenda."

The judge's finding against the district applied to the paper titled "The Most Interesting School District in America?" written by the American Enterprise Institute's Frederick Hess as part of a contracted deal with DCSD. In mid-September, the district emailed a link to the paper to 85,000 parents and community members - all potential voters in the Nov. 5, 2013 election. DCSD later revealed it had contracted with Hess to write the paper.

A copy of it also was delivered to many Douglas County residences about a month before the election, accompanied by a letter of endorsement for the four board-supported candidates signed by state lawmakers Sen. Ted Harvey, Rep. Frank McNulty and Rep. Polly Lawrence.

The judge "finds that the Hess report was commissioned and published as a means to support the reform agenda and any candidates who would further that agenda," Farrell wrote in her Dec. 24 ruling. "The ALJ finds that the district spent public funds to influence the outcome of the board election when it commissioned and paid $15,000 for the Hess report."

Farrell did not agree DCSD violated the act when its educational foundation contracted with former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, through alleged attempts to hamper the distribution of some campaign materials, publicize reform-candidate-only forums or give candidates unequal access to information - four other claims Keim made in her complaint.

Farrell did not levy a fine against DCSD, noting Keim didn't request one.
"I'm just happy to try to hold them accountable for doing something wrong," Keim said. "A big reason for pursuing this is to let people know that what you hear or read is not always true. And we all need to be very informed.

"It would be silly for them to appeal it. I think they should stop mis-using taxpayer dollars to defend inappropriate acts on their part."

Keim said she is paying her attorney through personal funds, and has received donations from supporters.

DCSD plans to not only appeal Farrell's ruling but to seek reimbursement for its legal fees. It has not yet received a final tally of those expenses from law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, hired to defend it in the case.

"The Administrative Law Judge ruled in the district's favor on five allegations under the campaign finance act, finding that there was absolutely no basis for those complaints," according to the school district's statement. "Because the Judge's rejection of those allegations was so emphatic, the district intends to ask for an award in its litigation costs."

DCSD paid Hess $30,000 for his work, $15,000 of it from school district public funds and the remainder through the Douglas County Educational Foundation. While Bennett's contract has not been released, school leaders previously have said he was paid $50,000 through a private donation made to the DCEF.

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