‘Parent-Led’ Recall Effort In Colorado Was Actually Bankrolled With $300k In Union Cash

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Court-ordered fundraising disclosures have revealed that an allegedly parent-led effort to take control of a Colorado school board was heavily financed by over $300,000 from state and national teachers unions.

The off-year election in 2015 saw an ambitious effort to recall three conservative members of the Jefferson County School Board, elected in 2013 to govern schools for a 500,000-person swath of Denver’s suburbs. The recall’s organizers were upset over an effort to tie teacher pay to performance, as well as board members’ attempt to modify the history curriculum to promote “patriotism and … the benefits of the free-enterprise system,” which drew national attention and sparked student walkouts.

A recall effort, designed to end the conservative board members’ tenure after just two years, proved spectacularly successful. In November, all three recalls were successful by a large margin, and two candidates backed by the recall movement also triumphed in regular elections for two other school board seats. Teachers unions and their allies around the country saw the it as a signal victory, a sign that reform efforts such as merit-based pay could be halted in their tracks.

During the campaign and afterwards, activists portrayed the recall as a parent-driven, grassroots effort to halt overreach by a right-wing board. On election night, newly-elected school board member Ali Lasell boasted that the results proved “public education in Jefferson County is not for sale.”

But the numbers suggest Lasell’s statement wasn’t wholly accurate. As it turns out, Jeffco United, a non-profit group which drove the recall, received about two-thirds of its funding from state and national teachers unions. When it was established in the spring, the very first donation Jeffco United received was $25,000 from the Colorado Education Association, which eventually gave a total of $113,500. The union’s national wing, the National Education Association, was even more generous, giving $150,000, while the Jefferson County Education Association pitched in $20,000. Notably, these donations were coming in well even before the recall petitions were filed, indicating unions were helping to drive the campaign before it was even a campaign.

The heavy flow of union dough was first noted by Complete Colorado, a website affiliated with the free-market think tank The Independence Institute, which fought against the recall.

A spokeswoman for the group told The Denver Post the heavy union fundraising was simply a necessity.

“This was a parent-led and parent-organized recall,” said spokeswoman Lynea Hansen. “But parents can’t raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of out-of-state money that keeps coming into Colorado. This is the way the game is set up. We’re playing by the rules that we’re given.”

But this is still a substantial shift from the rhetoric used during the election cycle, where, in the words of one local news station, “union” was treated as a dirty word, with leaders and supporters repeatedly rejecting any substantial connection between the recall effort and unions.

Initially, Jeffco United’s finances were kept secret, because Colorado law allows most non-profits to avoid disclosing their donors, as long as they aren’t narrowly focused on a particular political campaign. But after a complaint by the watchdog group Colorado Government Watch, a judge ruled Jeffco United’s primary purpose was simply the recall of the three school board members, and ordered the group to disclose its donors.

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