Among Weld County school districts, fuzzy campaign finance adherence becoming a pastime | MyWindsorNow.com

Among Weld County school districts, fuzzy campaign finance adherence becoming a pastime

Tyler Silvy
tsilvy@greeleytribune.com

With nearly $300 million up for grabs in school-related tax proposals, some Weld County school districts are betting on cozy relationships with financial institutions to help get those measures passed this November.

Government entities are not allowed to use taxpayer dollars to help support one side of a ballot question, according to Colorado campaign finance laws.

To get around that, districts hire a bond underwriter on the condition that the underwriter won't get paid unless the bond issue passes. That underwriter works with an issue committee — legally separate from the district — to help get the ballot measure passed.

In the Gilcrest-based Valley Re-1 School District, the George K. Baum company held a sort-of ballot measure boot camp for campaign staff. The story is similar in the Windsor Re-4, Weld Central Re-3J and Fort Lupton Re-8 school districts.

“We felt it was going to take a pretty big infusion of dollars into the campaign to get the message out to the people, and to do it in a complete and appropriate manner.

— Mike Geile, designated agent for pro-District 6 Community for Kids committee

The workaround has become so common even Colorado Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro has yielded to the inertia.

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In 2014, when The Tribune wrote about then-Valley Superintendent Jo Barbie's cozy relationship with underwriter RBC Capital, Toro called the underwriter's work to pass the bond an "end run" around campaign finance laws. He has since changed his mind.

"I've come to see more that there's really no other good way in setting this up," Toro said.

Greeley-Evans School District 6, which is pursuing a $12 million per year property tax increase, or mill levy override, is the only district that hasn't taken this approach. There's a reason for that: The issue committee, Community for Kids, has already raised $107,000, and has money to burn on campaign consultants.

"From an ethical point of view, it's the main way to go," said Mike Geile, the designated agent for the pro-District 6 Community for Kids committee. "The taxpayers should not have to fund the efforts that go into this."

It's easier for Geile to say.

Compared to the issue committee supporting Valley Re-1, whose designated agent, Jessica Freeman, said the committee has a goal of raising $15,000 to help pass a $62.5 million bond issue, the pro-District 6 committee is rolling in the dough.

University of Northern Colorado professor emeritus and state politics expert Steve Mazurana said a committee would have trouble hiring a campaign consultant if the committee raised just $15,000. Even if they could, they'd have no money left for signs or mass mailings.

"It's possible," Mazurana said. "If there's a person in the community that has a firm and is willing to do it at cost. Or, if a young person with a group or firm is willing to take it on to get publicity."

The pro-district crowd had the benefit of big backers long before the issue committee was established. When The Tribune raised questions about the district paying for polling on a ballot issue, Greeley Mayor Tom Norton gathered up some financial backers to plop $20,000 down on the polling so the district wouldn't have to use taxpayer money.

For Toro, the change of heart on district-contracted companies helping pass bond issues is steeped in an important detail: The district won't ever technically pay the underwriters who are helping pass the bond. Instead, the underwriters earn commission on the sale of bonds on the open market.

The practice of underwriters campaigning with issue committees, not to mention contributing cash, has become so common Windsor Re-4 Superintendent Dan Seegmiller saw no problem with it, even while demonstrating his knowledge of the law. They can't help the district, but they can help the issue committee, Seegmiller said.

For Geile, the mill levy override is so important for District 6 he doesn't want to risk even the appearance of flouting campaign finance laws.

"We felt it was going to take a pretty big infusion of dollars into the campaign to get the message out to the people, and to do it in a complete and appropriate manner," Geile said. "We have a lot at stake getting this MLO passed."

—Tyler Silvy covers education for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.

Issue committees

Valley Re-1

Issue: $62.5 million bond issue would take care of deferred maintenance issues on existing buildings.

Committee: Citizens for Weld Re-1

Money raised: None reported

Goal: $15,000

Weld Central Re-3J

Issue: $61 million bond issue would add a second elementary school in Lochbuie, replace some Hudson Academy classrooms and update security systems, among other things. A $3.3 million per year mill levy override would end after seven years, and would be used to raise teacher salaries and decrease class sizes, among other things.

Committee: Funding our Future

Money raised: None reported

Goal: N/A

Windsor Re-4

Issue: $104.8 million bond to build second high school and fund numerous other improvements. A $3.6 million mill levy override to supplement the district’s budget.

Committee: Friends of Weld Re-4

Money raised: $1,150

Goal: N/A

Greeley-Evans 6

Issue: $12 million mill levy override to fund increased security, new buses, technology upgrades, among other things.

Committee: Community for Kids

Money raised: $107,000

Goal: $130,000

Fort Lupton Re-8

Issue: $35 million bond to build permanent K-8 school to replace Quest Academy’s temporary, modular buildings, among other improvements.

Committee: Citizens for Weld Re-8 Schools

Money raised: $2,631 on hand

Goal: N/A

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