Time for DougCo to Take Responsibility for Its Actions
January 8, 2014
Douglas County School District violated the Colorado Constitution and the Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) when it used public funds to pay for a “consultant” (Dr. Rick Hess) to write a politically-motivated report and when the District disseminated the biased report to more than 85,000 people using its email system. The Hess report was titled “The Most Interesting School District in America?” and was written to evoke a response from readers who may not have first-hand knowledge regarding what is truly happening in DCSD. I have read this report several times, and if I had not been living the degradation of my children’s education, I too would have been easily persuaded by the claims made by this report.
Let me assure you that my pursuit of justice was not tied to my failed run for school board. I filed this complaint on October 17, weeks before the election was decided. The purpose of this complaint was to expose the wrongdoing related to DCSD using public funds and resources to influence the outcome of an election, which is specifically prohibited by law. These violations were uncovered through public records requests for which I was required to pay more than $650.
When many parents and community members read the Hess report, they complained to Dr. Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, DCSD Superintendent, about the political nature of the content. Dr. Fagen’s response was to send an email to her massive distribution list on October 2nd, only two weeks before the ballots dropped for the election, assuring the public that it was typical for districts to pay for third-party reviews of their operations. However, the judge found in her ruling that this was not typical behavior of the district in the past. Kevin Larsen, DCSD Board President, in his media release addressing the results of the judge’s decision, referred to the report as “positive news involving its education policy”. This “third-party review” dedicates more of its resulting report to “Electing a Reform Board” than any other topic, including the poorly implemented corporate education reforms that have divided our community and negatively impacted the learning environment of our students. Was it “positive news”, a “third-party review” or just plain “political propaganda”? The judge made the determination on page 12 of the decision:
“It was clear as discussed in the Finding of Facts, that the Hess Report was not a third party, unbiased study. To the contrary, the report was an endorsement of the reform agenda and explained the advantage of have (sic) a unified Board to fuel that agenda…..The Hess report was purchased with public money to influence the outcome of the Board election”.
Mr. Larsen also stated in his press release, “the district intends to ask for an award in its litigation costs.” When I filed my complaint on October 17, 2013, nearly three weeks before the election, I intended to represent myself in what should have been a brief two-hour hearing. In addition, I thought the district would use their in-house salaried attorney instead of hiring outside legal counsel to defend itself in what I believed to be an informal hearing with an administrative law judge. At this point, it became clear that the district was trying to intimidate me into dropping my complaint.
The more resources that were poured into this administrative complaint, the more concern I had for what was happening in Douglas County. At this point, I felt compelled to hire an attorney and to make every attempt to keep the effort and costs in this case to a minimum. Much of the evidence was not even presented and some of the witnesses on which I had planned to call did not testify. Regardless, the costs skyrocketed beyond my wildest dreams. While I began paying my legal fees out of personal funds, a legal defense fund was started to help fund the costs, which will likely exceed $20,000. Contributions have been in small increments from community members, much like the donations to my campaign. Contrary to what some might try to lead us to believe, I am not affiliated with the union or any other special interest group. I am an informed and involved parent who has seen our school district deteriorate under the current corporate reform agenda. I represent all of us who hope to see the leaders of our school district accept responsibility and do the right things for our students.
During the hearing, the District’s outside legal counsel requested to have all, and then subsequently parts of my complaint against DCSD dropped. The judge denied these requests. Litigation costs typically are awarded to a party if the complaint is determined to be frivolous. Both the judge’s finding of guilt and refusal to dismiss the charges in the complaint would indicate that it is not frivolous. It is my understanding from several attorneys that it is too late for the district to pursue reimbursement of fees and that the judge would have awarded them in the final decision, if appropriate. I believe Mr. Larsen, the Board of Education and District leadership are trying to mislead and intimidate the public in an attempt to stop future complaints or challenges of its questionable actions. This type of intimidation is not reflective of public servants who care about students and the community they serve, and would not be tolerated in the very schools over which they preside.
In his response to the decision, Mr. Larsen attempted to mislead the public into believing that the district won this complaint. The testimony, as well as statements made by my attorney, during the hearing were focused on the use of public funds to support and disseminate the Hess and Bennett reports that were clearly political propaganda. Other items were included in the complaint to demonstrate a pattern of inappropriate behavior.
By stating that the “Judge ruled in the District’s favor on five allegations under the campaign finance act” and then stating that “the Judge’s rejection of those allegations was so emphatic,” Mr. Larsen was clearly attempting to shine a positive light on a dire violation of the law by the district. For the most part, the judge stated that sufficient evidence was not presented to make a determination in the other areas. I believe if we were able to introduce all evidence and witnesses, we may have been able to prove these points as well.
With regard to the Bennett report specifically, the judge found that it too “was an endorsement for the District’s Reform Agenda, and was intended to influence the outcome of the election.” Because the District funneled funds through the Douglas County Educational Foundation (DCEF) and refused to make its records public, we were denied access to the Bennett contract with the District and the many emails and other items that would likely have proven that public funds were used. It is important to note:
DCSD spends approximately $300,000 of public funds per year supporting the administrative functions of the DCEF;
The 2013 DCSD Comprehensive Annual Financial Report organizational chart (page 15) discloses the DCEF reporting to the publicly-funded DCSD Community Relations Department, and indirectly the superintendent and Board;
The Interim Director of the DCEF is also the DCSD Communications Director and paid for completely with public funds;
Several DCSD Board members and cabinet level staff sit on the Board of Directors of DCEF; and
DCEF shares all infrastructure with DCSD, including building space, IT systems, phones, email and accounting systems, to name a few.
Both, the Hess and Bennett reports, were advertised by the District as independent, third-party reviews, with no mention of payment for these services, until a local reporter and some parents uncovered the true source of these reports. Even then, the district told reporters, parents, community members and the general public that these funds were all paid through DCEF with private funds. The District’s outside legal counsel and Mr. Ross (under oath) agreed the first half of the Hess report was paid with district funds. The contract was reviewed by Mr. Ross and signed by Cinamon Watson, both the District Community Relations Resource Development Officer and the Interim Director of DCEF. The contract executed between the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative “think tank” for which Dr. Hess does work, and DCSD (not DCEF) committed public funds for this report. The second half of the payment was made by DCEF after the cover up of the reports became public.
Complaints were filed with the IRS against DCEF when the nature of payment of these reports was uncovered ($17,500 for the Hess report and $50,000 for the Bennett report). The IRS has strict rules surrounding the use of non-profit funds for political purposes. Considering the judge’s findings related to both the Hess and Bennett reports, both the District and the DCEF should be concerned about the educational foundation losing its 501(c)(3) status, which will negatively impact the more than 80 chapters of school groups that work tirelessly to fundraise for education, extracurricular and sports activities to supplement the depleted budgets of Douglas County schools under the Reform Agenda.
The Hess report was disseminated in many ways beyond the distribution to 85,000 email recipients through the District.
State politicians and the Douglas County GOP disseminated the report through emails and full color copies along with endorsements in a non-partisan election on the doorsteps and doorknobs of registered voters.
The Denver Post Editorial Staff cited it in their endorsements of the Reform Candidates. The editorial board did not even speak with the independent candidates before making their endorsements.
Much of the campaign literature sent out by the Reform Candidates and political organizations supporting their candidacy quote both the Bennett and Hess reports.
The report was also cited and linked on Reform Candidates and schools’ websites and Facebook pages.
Many of us are intrigued by titles and purported independent reviews that show “things are working in DCSD”. I needed only 1,916 votes to overtake my opponent in the election. I have to wonder if 2% of the population who voted in the election could have been swayed by such bold claims of “unusually ambitious”, “remarkable”, “bold”, illuminating” and “cage-busting leaders” (page 5 of the decision) used to describe our district in the Hess report. More than 70% of Douglas County residents do not have school-aged children and do not have the opportunity to separate fact from fiction as reported by paid consultants. I might have been intrigued and swayed myself if I had not directly witnessed the destruction these reforms have caused and the lack of proper implementation of many policies that have been introduced under this administration in our school district. Unfortunately, all of the great things cited in the Hess and Bennett report look good on paper, but the reality of what is happening to our educational system in Douglas County looks nothing like what is talked about at high levels in the ivory towers of the DCSD administration building. Even they are swayed by their own propaganda.
It is time for the DCSD Board of Education and Leadership to admit their wrongdoings, take the appropriate action with employees who have broken the law, and stop wasting public funds appealing a decision of guilt that was clearly established over two days of evidence and testimony before an Administrative Law Judge. The DCSD Board and leadership have caused a huge divide in our community with their inappropriate behavior. It is time for them to ask for forgiveness and start serving their constituents.
Julie Keim was a candidate in the 2013 DCSD Board of Education campaign. She is a parent to Douglas County students, actively involved at many levels in her children’s schools, and a proponent for responsible innovation in public education. Ms. Keim has extensive experience in accountability and responsibility of public entities through her former work auditing public entities (including schools), running the financial operations of a $2B agency and providing public sector consulting services to public agencies specializing in legal compliance and fiscal responsibility and integrity. Ms. Keim filed her complaints against the district prior to the results of a very close election. She continues to pursue this complaint and other issues to be sure DCSD makes decisions with the best interests of students, taxpayers and the public in mind.