Between 2013 and 2017, Houston oilman (and former Denver resident) Alex Cranberg gave $120,750 in campaign contributions to nine people running for school boards in Colorado, all but one for candidates in Douglas County.
Those big checks — some for as much as $25,000 — didn’t violate limits on campaign contributions, because there are no limits to how much someone can give a person running for a school board in Colorado.
Should state Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, have her way, those contributions would be capped at $2,500 per election cycle for individuals and $25,000 for small donor committees, according to House Bill 1066, which will get its first hearing on Jan. 30 in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
Campaign finance laws limit how much can be given in an election cycle to a governor, state lawmaker and other statewide elected officials, including members of the State Board of Education. Those contribution limits range from $1,350 per election cycle for statewide offices (governor, for example) to $400 per election cycle for candidates for state House and Senate.
But school board candidates — as well as RTD director candidates* — have never been subject to contribution limits, and that’s led to runaway spending in school board races, mostly along the Front Range.
Take, for example, the 2017 Denver school board race. Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who won re-election to her second term, took in almost $118,000 in contributions. Eleven contributions were for $2,500 or more, and included a $10,000 check from former CU President Bruce Benson, $7,500 each from Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Sam Gary of Gary Energy; and $5,000 each from former DU Chancellor Dan Ritchie and Philip Anschutz (Anschutz owns the media group that runs Colorado Politics and The Gazette).
In 2013, Meghann Silverthorn won an election to the Douglas County School Board with just over $41,000 in contributions. Of that, $25,000 came from Cranberg and $10,000 came from Ralph Nagel, another wealthy Republican backer of taxpayer-funded school vouchers.
The limits for small donor committees set under HB1066 would also cap contributions made by public teachers’ unions, including the Colorado Education Association, which in 2017 put nearly $260,000 into school board races. That included checks of $16,500 each to Susan Harmon, Ron Mitchell and Brad Rupert, all running for the Jeffco School Board in 2017.
Sirota told Colorado Politics that “Denver is certainly the most egregious example of out of control contributions and money in school board races, though it is not the only place you can see outsized contributions to candidates for this volunteer, unpaid position.”
She noted that the state has limits for almost every other candidate for elected office, and school boards should not be an exception.
“These outsized contributions can have a negative impact on even the appearance of quid pro quo, which diminishes the electorate’s faith in its representatives in office," Sirota said. "Nor should you have to have a long list of wealthy friends in order to run for office."
One area that Sirota’s bill does not address: how much a candidate can self-fund. It's not unusual for candidates to put their own money into their races; it shows donors that the candidates have skin in the game. But self-funding has grown to extraordinary levels, such as in 2018, when Gov. Jared Polis self-funded his race for governor to the tune of nearly $23.4 million and set a new state record.
Self-funding became a big issue in the 2019 Denver school board race, when candidate Scott Balderman put more than $372,000 of his own money into his winning effort for the open District 1 seat. One of Balderman’s opponents, Radhika Nath, called on the General Assembly to set contribution limits for school board candidates during the race.
“We are not able to regulate self-funding,” said Sirota, who lives in District 1. “I’ve had numerous constituents ask me to run a bill placing limits on these school board races, and I look forward to moving this bill forward and restoring some sanity to our school board races.”
Michael Karlik contributed to this report.
Correction: Due to an error on the Secretary of State's website, an earlier version said candidates for county offices are not subject to contribution limits. County candidates have limits of $2,500 from individuals and $25,000 from small donor committees.