High-profile speaker is paid school-foundation consultant

Douglas County School Board president says donations fund outside experts

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Former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett’s Sept. 25 address in Lone Tree was paid for as part of a five-figure consulting agreement through the Douglas County School District’s fundraising arm.

Bennett spoke about American education and the reforms that Douglas County is attempting.

Rick Hess, co-author of a paper titled “The Most Interesting School District in America?” — which Bennett referenced in his speech — also is a paid consultant with the Douglas County Educational Foundation. The school district touted the paper in its Sept. 18 electronic parents’ newsletter, Newsline, but did not indicate Hess received financial compensation.

School board president John Carson said the foundation has paid Bennett about $50,000 since July for a variety of work, including the Lone Tree Arts Center speech; it also has funded Hess’ compensation. The DCEF is the district’s nonprofit fundraising arm.

No mention of the school district or the DCEF’s involvement in Bennett’s address was made during the lead-up to the event, or at the event. The South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce organized the address, but did not finance it.

“We have raised and expended $50,000 so far on a strategic relationship with (Bennett),” Carson said during a Sept. 25 phone interview. “He’s been out here, doing a white paper, providing recommendations and other things.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Hess “is basically paid to be a consultant to the district and do research and provide strategic advice to us,” Carson said.

Hess and his AEI colleague Max Eden co-wrote the paper on Douglas County’s education reform efforts.

The nonprofit AEI is a conservative, pro-business think tank “committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise,” according to its website. Critics have called it a leading member of the neoconservative movement.

Carson described the consultants’ DCEF funding as similar to DCSD’s legal fund in the voucher lawsuit.

“Obviously the foundation is a means through which we raise funds for various functions of the district, but again, those are private dollars,” Carson said. “We feel it’s important to raise those additional items that are important to our district through private sources.

“We have received private donations to support our work with a number of folks that I would say are education innovation thinkers. Third-party validation, work and suggestions are important to us.”

The DCEF “was created in June of 1990 to develop private resources to enrich education within Douglas County schools for the fulfillment of lifelong learning experiences of our students, citizens and community,” according to its website.

Former president of the DCEF Bob Kaser said payment for outside consultants is inconsistent with the organization’s original intent.

“Our total focus was where the kids are, inside the classroom,” he said. “Worthy grants for students, teachers and parents is how we considered dispersing funds. I think what the DCEF started out to be and was in the ’90s and what it looks like today is dramatically different, and polarizing.”

DCSD’s community relations officer Cinamon Watson was named interim director of the DCEF in 2012.

In addition to Hess and Bennett, paid consultants include education experts Tony Wagner and Yong Zhao “and other folks,” Carson said.

Carson acknowledged the timing of Bennett’s address — less than six weeks before the high-stakes school board election — might appear curious to some.

“We’ve been rolling along for quite a while on all of our innovations,” he said. “But we’re not going to stop moving forward just because there’s elections out there. We think it’s important to communicate with the community and make clear our course of action.”

Jeff Holwell, director of the South Metro Chamber’s Economic Development Group, said the organization’s role in Bennett’s appearance “was attracting the community to participate in the event.”

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