School foundation’s role in campaign questioned

Consultant pay among issues as election near

The Douglas County School District decision to extend school vouchers to some students is facing challenges from four national and local organizations. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen | ckuhlen@ccnewspapers.com
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A group of parents and a former Douglas County Educational Foundation chairman believe a veil of secrecy has fallen over the school district’s nonprofit fundraising arm.

The foundation’s current chair, however, said the organization has been unfairly ensnared in a contentious school board election. “It is silly season for campaigns right now,” Amy Sherman said. “It makes me so sad (the DCEF) is getting dragged into this mess.”

Bob Kaser, a past chairman of the DCEF, sees the foundation’s situation as anything but silly. His months-long quest for answers to questions about changes to the organization has been met with repeated delays and silence.

“We’ve lost sight of the kids, the parents and the teachers,” said Kaser, secretary of the Strong Schools Coalition, a group critical of the current board and administration.

The DCEF is a 23-year-old organization created, its website says, to “develop private resources to enrich education within Douglas County schools for the fulfillment of lifelong learning experiences of our students, citizens and community.” Kaser served on the board seven years, chairing it from 1994-96.

Recently, money donated to the foundation from a private organization paid for former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett’s Sept. 25 speech at the Lone Tree Arts Center — given three weeks before ballots are mailed for the high-stakes school board election.

Bennett, a district consultant paid by the DCEF, both praised and questioned Douglas County’s education reforms, and referenced white papers written by himself and another DCEF-paid consultant, Rick Hess.

“It was private donation funds” that paid Bennett, Sherman said. “No other kid, school or parent money was used.”

Consultant one of many

Douglas County School Board President John Carson, a DCEF board member, disclosed after the speech that Bennett’s appearance was part of a $50,000, longer-term consulting agreement that began in July. Bennett is among several DCSD consultants paid through private DCEF donations, he said.

“We raise funds to do that and that seems to me to be a very appropriate function for an educational foundation,” he said. “If private fundraising is done to support education experts working with our district, I don’t know why anyone would have an issue with that. It seems to be very beneficial to the Douglas County School D istrict.”

Sherman said Bennett’s address was covered by an August donation from the private, Denver-based Considine Family Foundation. The donation was approved during the foundation’s August board meeting, Sherman said, and also covered at least part of Hess’ fees.

Hess consulted with the school board in 2010 as it began its search for a new superintendent, according to an EdNews Colorado article.

Carson did not disclose Bennett’s, Hess’ or other paid consultants’ status through the foundation until he was questioned by Colorado Community Media after the Lone Tree event.

Sherman said she did not know why the donated money was given to the DCEF instead of directly to Bennett, Hess and/or the Lone Tree Arts Center, which hosted Bennett’s address. She directed those questions to DCSD spokeswoman Cinamon Watson, who has led the foundation since 2012.

Watson, when asked for an explanation of the consultants’ pay and copies of their contracts, wrote: “The constant attacks on DCEF are part of election season posturing.” She noted that a private grant covered Bennett’s work, listed several foundation accomplishments, and wrote that expert input and review is helping the district establish “a solid foundation” for its transformation of public education.

In an Oct. 5 phone interview, Carson said he didn’t have dollar amounts for all consultants readily available, but said some work was provided pro bono.

Focus ‘really a shame’

Sherman said the foundation recently received an outside legal opinion that the board acted within its legal authority.

“To focus on this Bennett issue is really a shame for all the hard work this (foundation) board is doing,” she said, pointing to the more than $100,000 in grants and scholarship funds the foundation has made to students, teachers and schools in the last year. “We are trying to stay out of the political part.”

A Colorado publication for nonprofits suggests organizations avoid potentially problematic situations. “Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence in Colorado,” a document produced by the Colorado Nonprofit Association, includes a section titled “Declining Gifts.”

“A nonprofit should decline gifts (cash or non-cash) that would bring about adverse conditions for the organization or its constituents and given for purposes outside the scope of its mission,” it reads.

During his tenure, Kaser said the DCEF was careful to remain neutral and opened all its records and activities to the public. Hiring consultants was not within the scope of its mission, as he understood it.

“We raised funds for worthy grants for kids,” he said. “We never engaged in all these satellite activities.”

Superintendent’s email

DCSD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, who also sits on the DCEF board, sent an email to parents Oct. 2 to explain the district’s use of consultants.

According to Fagen’s email, the third-party validation provided by such consultants is critical, and part of the effort DCSD launched in March 2011 to implement “the most rigorous transformation plan in American public education.”

“Please understand that in some cases (like Dr. Bennett and Dr. Hess), private funders paid for their time/work in our district to provide an expert, third-party review,” the email reads. “In other cases where there was a heavy focus on proactive strategic planning and/or implementation through professional development, community outreach, and collaboration, the district paid for the support for our staff.”

Fagen, who said it is customary to pay experts for their work and expertise, specifically mentions Bennett, Hess and education experts that include Tony Wagner, Yong Zhao and Ken Kay in her email.

Parent Susan Arnold views the consultants’ involvement differently.

“It feels very much like paid PR,” she said.

Parents seek answers

Arnold and parent Stefania Scott met Sept. 30 with Watson and Fagen to ask questions about DCEF’s funding of consultants, and said they felt largely “stonewalled” in their efforts to obtain answers.

The two women had questions about the consultants’ pay, donors’ names, the foundation’s budget and its relationship with the Starboard Group, which describes itself as “the state’s premier Republican fundraising and consulting firm.”

The Starboard Group helped coordinate a summer golf fundraiser and a fundraising luncheon for the DCEF. Starboard’s contract for the luncheon showed it received a retainer and a percentage of gross revenues, and the firm declined to release its contract with DCEF for the golf event.

Arnold and Scott also asked to see foundation board minutes and its conflict-of-interest policy. Their questions have not yet been answered or requests granted.

DCSD also has rejected Colorado Open Records Law requests from another parent and Colorado Community Media about its relationship with the foundation, noting that as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, DCEF records are not subject to open records requirements.

Request for minutes

Kaser repeatedly has attempted to obtain foundation board minutes from June 2011 to present and has to date been unsuccessful. He emailed his initial request for the minutes Aug. 27.

In a Sept. 12 follow-up email checking on the status of his request for minutes, Kaser wrote to Watson, Sherman and DCEF secretary Carol Stulz: “Since the salaries of the four employees of the DCEF and all the financial/board records are maintained on DCSD information systems and by taxpayer funds, disclosure of a nonprofit’s actions should not be impeded.”

In an Oct. 4 email to Kaser, Watson wrote, “We will try and respond to your request late next week.”

Kaser described that as the latest in a series of delays; as of Oct. 8, he had received no additional correspondence about his request.

Kaser also repeatedly has asked to see DCEF’s conflict-of-interest policy, a document recommended by the IRS to “establish procedures that will offer protection against charges of impropriety involving officers, directors or trustees.” On Aug. 20, he mailed a request for the policy to Sherman, Watson, Fagen and members of the school board, he said.

He instead received an email copy of the DCEF’s board service commitment pledge, which requires board members to pledge to avoid a conflict of interest. That pledge does not address the activities of DCEF employees.

Document called ‘political’

Susan Meek, who in addition to being a former DCSD spokeswoman and DCEF business partnerships coordinator is advising candidates who oppose the current board, believes a line may have been crossed.

In Bennett’s speech, in addition to referring to a white paper he wrote, he referenced a white paper co-written by consultant Hess, called “The Most Interesting School District in America?” The paper, written by Hess and a colleague from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was released Sept. 17. The school district touted the paper in its Sept. 18 electronic parents’ newsletter, Newsline, but did not indicate Hess received financial compensation.

While Hess’ paper discloses the project was done with DCSD’s cooperation, it includes positive information about the current board and its mission. Neither paper discloses the writers’ paid consultant status.

“In my mind, those are clearly political papers with political purpose,” Meek said. “What was lacking in (Bennett’s) white paper and at the event was a statement: ‘I was paid to review.’ It’s very misleading and it’s a political document released weeks before the election.”

Hess’ paper, co-authored by AEI colleague Max Eden, includes a section on the election of a reform board.

“DougCo is a compelling illustration of how a unified board majority can fuel rapid, ambi tious reform,” it reads.

It also includes a highlighted box of board member profiles, noting, “The DougCo board, consisting of conservative members swept into office by record voter turnout, has been steadfast in its commitment to school choice, performance pay, and wholesale reform.”

Bennett’s own September white paper on the district, titled “A Model for the Nation?” describes the expiration of the teachers’ union agreement, concluding, “The district is now in the unique situation where its reform agenda can proceed full speed ahead virtually unfettered by opposition. The current district leaders have unanimous control of the board and the teachers’ union is no longer organized nor engaged in opposition.”

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