CASTLE ROCK, Colo. - Douglas County's School District violated Colorado's fair campaign practice laws by paying for a white paper intended to influence the November election, an administrative law judge found in a decision she signed on Christmas Eve.
The ruling follows a complaint filed by Julie Keim, an independent candidate in the board election, who argued the district's violations included hiring a conservative company to write a report that favored the conservative "reform agenda" favored by the sitting board. The judge's "Findings of Fact" indicate that all board members prior to the 2013 election supported that agenda.
The agenda's principles include allowing children to attend their school of choice within the district, including private schools, and a pay-for-performance plan for teachers.
-- EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the publication of this article, the President of the DougCo School Board has pledged to appeal.
Administrative Law Judge Hollyce Farrell also found that the American Enterprise Institute, the contractor hired to complete the report, was paid a total of $30,000. Half of the payment came from the district and the other half was paid by the Douglas County School District Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of the American Enterprise Institute and the white paper is cited as "the Hess Report" because of his involvement.
In a March 22, 2013 email cited by the judge, the contractor wrote to the district's communications director to request guidance for the report.
The email said, in part, "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."
The finalized version of the report was released on Sept. 18 and cited by the district in a weekly newsletter sent to 85,000 subscribers. The final report uses superlatives like, "unusually ambitious," "remarkable," "bold," "illuminating" and "cage-busting leaders," to describe the reform agenda.
"The [administrative law judge] 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," wrote Farrell in the decision signed on Dec. 24.
Farrell's decision also cites a second report by former Secretary of Education Dr. William Bennett, which was funded with $50,000 of the foundation's money.
"Dr. Bennett's report (the "Bennett Report") was an endorsement for the District's reform agenda and was intended to influence the outcome of the Board election," Farrell wrote in her ruling.
She goes on to say that neither report contained independent reviews of the agenda.
Farrell does not impose any fines against the district for these violations, saying that Keim's complaint did not request any.
The ruling was signed on Christmas Eve, but the attached certificate of service indicates it was delivered to lawyers on Dec. 26.
A copy of Farrell's ruling was provided to CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia Thursday night by Keim, who lost her race against Judith Reynolds by about 4 percent.