DENVER — School board races became exceedingly expensive in the state this past election cycle. Case and point: Douglas County, where some candidates raised upwards of $96,000 for their races.
“I went back for a few years, I think the last two or three cycles, and you just didn't see that sort of big individual money,” said data journalist Sandra Fish, who runs the website followthmoneyco.com. “So, you had a handful of individual donors really made a big difference there.”
Unlike other elections, school board races do not have any sort of cap on the amount of money an individual or committee can donate to a candidate.
Now, state lawmakers are considering a bill to place limits on these campaign contributions.
Douglas County certainly isn’t the only place that has seen expensive school board races in recent years. Denver has seen its share of costly campaigns as have places like Littleton, Jefferson County, Cherry Creek, Boulder and more.
In her reporting, Fish has noticed that these school board contests are not only becoming more expensive but also more political with Democratic and Republican party officials endorsing certain candidates in the past election cycle for a position that’s supposed to be nonpartisan.
“These are places where I think a lot of people have realized they can really make a difference, and both parties actually see this as sort of a training ground. You see people start at the school board or city council level, and then work their way up,” she said.
HB 22-1060 would cap individual contributions at $2,500 for individual donors and $25,000 for small donor committees.
“We think what that will do is still allow candidates to raise the money they need for communicating and running for office, but it will eliminate those really outlandish contributions that make everybody's eyebrows raise,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, the bill’s co-sponsor.
Those contribution limits would be higher than most other races. State lawmakers, for instance, are limited to $400 campaign contributions from individuals and 5,350 per election cycle from small donor committees.
Sirota acknowledges that it is a high limit for these positions but insists the cap will help give the public a sense of confidence that there is integrity in the election process.
“One thing that it should do is it should help restore some faith in the process that candidates aren't being bought with these huge contributions,” she said.
At its first committee test last week, current Douglas County school board member Susan Meek testified in favor of the bill, saying the large donations create an environment where average citizens simply cannot compete.
Meek said she believes the bill will help even the playing field for candidates in races across the state.
Former DCSD board member Kevin Leung also testified in favor of the bill. Leung lost his school board race in November after being outraised by his opponent by more than $60,000.
“When a majority of wealthy individuals donate the majority of funds, they're essentially buying the election,” Leung said during his public testimony.
He went on to say that unlimited contributions result in unfair elections where questions are raised afterward about who’s interest the new candidates will feel a need to serve: the students’ or wealthy donors’.
No one testified against the bill at the committee hearing, however, republicans like Rep. Patrick Neville raised concerns about the potential consequences of this bill passing.
“This bill will only place limits on the average citizen and encourage more dark money. In past years, unions and other special interests have spent over $400,000 in Douglas County alone. We also have had candidates loan themselves the likes of $20,000. This bill doesn’t prohibit those activities and instead attacks and limits the average citizen who wants to make a difference in their local school board election,” Neville said in a statement to Denver7.
Neville worries about these school board races could become increasingly uglier since the candidates will not be able to coordinate their campaigns with expenditure committees.
Leung had loaned $20,000 to his campaign in the 2021 election cycle. He was asked about that by Neville in the committee hearing Leung said he would favor a limit on that spending as well but he felt he had to spend that amount just to be able to try to keep up with his competitor.
Other opponents worry this bill will give too much power to teacher’s unions to be able to support their candidates more than individuals.
Nevertheless, the bill passed its first committee test and will continue through the legislative process. If it is successful, it will be the second contribution limit cap lawmakers pass in recent years.
In 2019, state lawmakers passed a similar bill imposing new contribution caps on county office elections at similar levels to what the legislature is now considering for school board races.