A seven-hour state-level hearing Dec. 2 revealed details about the collaboration between the Douglas County School District and consultants hired to write papers on the alleged success of its reform efforts.
Plaintiffs in the hearing, who alleged violations of the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act, also introduced a contract between DCSD and the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that explained the type of paper the district wanted to see.
Previously, school officials said all payments to AEI came from the Douglas County Educational Foundation, but testimony revealed that the district paid for at least half of the $30,000 contract.
The hearing, held at the Office of Administrative Courts in downtown Denver, was based on allegations that DCSD violated the state’s campaign law during the fall 2013 school board election campaign. Unsuccessful school board candidate Julie Keim filed the complaint. By 5 p.m. Dec. 2, the defendants had only just begun to present their side of the case, prompting the judge to schedule a continuance tentatively set for Dec. 10.
Keim’s complaint alleges that DCSD’s pre-election actions were designed to benefit the “reform” candidates in the race. Those four candidates, including incumbents Doug Benevento and Meghann Silverthorn, and newcomers Judi Reynolds and Jim Geddes, won the Nov. 5 election.
Attorney Jason Dunn, hired by DCSD to represent the district in the case and accompanied at the hearing by DCSD legal counsel Rob Ross, said evidence doesn’t support Keim’s complaint.
“There is no evidence it was done with the intent to support candidates,” Dunn said. “At the end of the day, this is about political theater.”
AEI’s Rick Hess and Max Eden wrote a paper, “The Most Interesting School District in America,” that the district emailed to parents Sept. 18 as a “just-released white paper” and did not identify as a district-paid product.
The Feb. 6, 2013, contract between DCSD and AEI outlines a $30,000 payment and scope of services, asking the organization to “research, create, publish and publicize” a 25-30 page white paper with three to five sidebars. DCSD’s requirements for the paper included a description of the district, the problems its reforms are meant to address, how the reforms are “new and different,” district challenges in the face of its reforms and lessons learned. The district’s lead spokeswoman and its foundation director, Cinamon Watson, signed as DCSD’s representative.
Hess and Watson also exchanged emails about the paper in which the writer asked for further guidance.
“Ideally, we would love for you all to help us help you,” Hess wrote in a March 22 email to Watson. “Rather, we would prefer it if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worthy of attention, what you’d like to see written about, and what your general angle on it and the paper is.”
In her testimony, Keim also claimed statistics were “cherry picked” to reflect positively on the district, and that DCSD heavily edited Hess’ draft document, making 71 changes “that were, in my opinion, political in nature.”
A separate contract with former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, who both wrote a paper and made a public speech weeks before the election, has not been released. District leaders revealed only under questioning following Bennett’s Sept. 25 public speech that he, too, is a paid consultant. They have said the $50,000 used to pay him came from a donation made to the Douglas County Educational Foundation, the district’s nonprofit fundraising arm.
“It feels like the district went out of its way to deceive the public that two experts wrote papers about how great the reforms are working,” Susan Meek, an activist who supported the losing candidates, testified.
Though the two contracted documents were the focus of the Dec. 2 hearing, testimony also centered around alleged district restrictions on parent distribution of campaign material, online postings by two charter schools about election forums to which only the reform candidates were invited, and a sitting school board member’s Facebook posting — which Keim said suggested the district was seeking information to use against her.
Two principals testified on behalf of DCSD as the defense began presenting its case late on Dec. 2. Principal Laura Wilson of Redstone Elementary, who had asked a parent volunteer to stop leaving fliers on cars parked in the school lot, said she was acting based on another parent’s complaint — not a district directive. Parker Core Knowledge Charter School Director Teri Aplin said she was unaware one of the candidate events posted with information sent to parents included only the reform candidates.
Dunn moved Dec. 2 to dismiss the case, but Judge Hollyce Farrell rejected the motion.
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