Law & Courts

Colorado District Found to Violate Campaign Rules

By Evie Blad — January 07, 2014 3 min read
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Colorado’s Douglas County school district violated state campaign laws by contracting for and disseminating an American Enterprise Institute white paper that supported the “reform agenda” of the school board, actions intended to aid the so-called “reform slate” of board candidates in the November election, a judge has ruled.

The paper, promoted in a district newsletter distributed to 85,000 recipients, including parents, came to be known as the “Hess Report” for its lead author, Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the Washington-based think tank. Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog hosted on Education Week‘s website, has been affiliated with the district as a consultant, the judge noted.

The AEI report at the center of the controversy, which was reviewed by the district before it was published in September, supports the school board’s policy prescriptions, including school vouchers and teacher merit pay, the judge said.

The report includes profiles of four school board candidates who supported the “reform agenda” and cites the importance of maintaining “a unified board with a coherent vision.” Those candidates, two newcomers and two incumbents, all won their races in the fall.

An unsuccessful challenger, Julie A. Keim, brought the complaint that led to the Dec. 24 ruling by state Administrative Law Judge Hollyce Farrell.

The AEI report cost $30,000, with $15,000 paid by the district and $15,000 from a district foundation, whose funds are not considered public, the ruling said. The authors, Mr. Hess and AEI researcher Max Eden, were tasked with “describing some of the advantages” of the district’s model.

The use of public funds on the report, evidence that the district influenced the report’s wording and reviewed its findings, and the district’s dissemination of the document amounted to a violation of the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act, Judge Farrell ruled.

“It was clear as discussed in the findings of fact, that the Hess Report was not a third-party, unbiased study,” she wrote. “To the contrary, the report was an endorsement of the reform agenda and explained the advantage of having a unified board to fuel that agenda. ... The Hess Report was purchased with public money to influence the outcome of the board election.”

Plans for Appeal

Judge Farrell did not order the district to pay a fine because the complainant had not requested it. Ms. Keim had raised other allegations of campaign-law violations by the district, but the judge ruled against those points.

The district said in a statement that it plans to appeal the decision.

“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 statement said.

Ms. Keim said in a statement posted on her campaign Facebook page that she was “shocked and dismayed” that the district would appeal the ruling, and that she intends to challenge the appeal.

“The legislative declaration of the Fair Campaign Practices Act speaks to the importance of the strong enforcement of campaign laws in order to alleviate the disproportionate level of influence over the political process by wealthy contributors and special-interest groups, thereby negatively impacting qualified citizens from running for political office,” Ms. Keim wrote.

Parents’ groups and the Douglas County teachers’ union have questioned the influence of funding from out-of-state groups on district policy, and a local mother has said she filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that the district foundation uses that funding in violation of its nonprofit status.

Mr. Hess said that he did not discuss elections with the district when it commissioned the report last February, and that he took care to disclose his involvement as a consultant when it was published. He said he allowed members of the teachers’ union—and district representatives—to review the text before publication.

“I think the report’s very clear that we don’t know whether or not what Douglas County is doing is going to deliver the hoped-for results,” Mr. Hess said. The paper notes that it was “supported by Douglas County and made possible by ready access to teachers, administrators, schools, parents, and board members.”

Mr. Hess wrote a Sept. 18 blog post on the report for Education Week. He amended the post to clarify his role as a district consultant.

The district’s foundation also paid former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett $50,000 to write a report that “was an endorsement for the board’s reform agenda,” Judge Farrell wrote. Because that payment involved no public funds, it was not a campaign-law violation, she held.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Judge Censures District’s Use Of ‘Hess Report’

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