McVaney’s aim is conservative school reform
He’s been called an angel on one side and a meddler on the other in regards to Tuesday’s school board election. But few in Mesa County know much more than what a Google search will yield about C. Edward McVaney.
McVaney is the Greenwood Village billionaire who donated $5,000 apiece to District 51 School Board candidates Pat Kanda, Mike Lowenstein and John Sluder. All three said they have not met McVaney. That’s not uncommon. McVaney, 72, “keeps to himself,” according to Mark Baisley, his friend and Colorado Republican Party vice chairman.
Reaching McVaney is no easy feat. Contact information beyond addresses? Forget it. The 20-year-old charitable nonprofit, TYL Foundation, which is managed by his daughter, Kylee, lists an address in Littleton but no public phone number or email address. Calls to Valor Christian High School Principal Kurt Unruh have not been returned. Baisley chuckled at the idea McVaney would be interested in calling a reporter.
A 2011 Denver Post article featuring McVaney described his role as a trustee and major donor to the construction of Douglas County-based private school Valor Christian. In the article, the Omaha, Neb., native who founded software company JD Edwards did not want to share how much he invested in the school and downplayed his role there but talked of his interest in education.
“We want the best for our grandchildren. Everyone wants the best for their children,” he said in the article.
Baisley, who said he first met McVaney in 2002 when Baisley chaired the Colorado GOP’s finance committee and knew McVaney as a mass donor to the party, said he got to know McVaney better during the 2009 and 2011 Douglas County School Board elections. That’s when Baisley, head of the Douglas County Republican Party from 2010 to 2013, campaigned for the conservative board candidates to which McVaney donated. McVaney contributed $5,000 apiece to four conservative, reform-minded candidates in the 2009 Douglas County School Board election and $10,000 apiece to three Douglas County reform candidates in the 2011 school board election.
Douglas County inroads
In March 2011, the Douglas County School Board approved the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, according to the Douglas County School District’s website. The program allowed students to use up to three-quarters of the money the state education funding formula gives Douglas County per student (currently $6,386) and apply that amount toward tuition at a local private school. Valor Christian High School, which McVaney donated a large, undisclosed amount of money to build, was one of those schools.
Valor Christian was the most popular choice among 18 options in 2012, according to the school district. The program is currently suspended pending resolution of a lawsuit.
McVaney would not get money from the voucher program in Douglas County because he is a donor, not a founder. “Having quality and choice in education is one of the things in Ed’s heart,” Baisley said.
Baisley said he and McVaney are interested in reform and agree that teacher unions are a “security blanket” but are not organizations they believe are helping education.
“We need to use the greatest strengths of the United States, which are liberty and free enterprise, which translates to choice, which could translate to vouchers, but neither Mr. McVaney nor I are opposed to funding public education through taxation,” Baisley said.
Baisley delivered McVaney’s $5,000 checks to Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder when they met in Grand Junction to discuss political strategy. Kanda said spending $875 per candidate with Baisley’s Odd November, LLC, for campaign literature development was a string attached to the donation. Lowenstein and Baisley said it was a suggestion, not a requirement.
McVaney also donated $5,000 apiece this fall to Greeley 6 School Board candidate Donna Downey and Thompson School Board candidates Rocci Bryan, Carl Langner and Donna Rice. All four are also clients of Odd November.
Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder say they don’t know much about McVaney except that he supports them and supports conservative education reform. All three have said publicly they do not plan to change their views on education to suit McVaney but believe he agrees with many of their values already.
On the topic of vouchers, Lowenstein said he needs to “study the problem” before forming an opinion on them, while Kanda has said he is “not sure vouchers will help” the lowest-income students. Sluder said his ideas of using public funds for “choice” schools refer to charter schools, not private schools. Charter schools are public, receive state funds and do not charge tuition.
Sluder said McVaney’s money was needed to catch up in a “David and Goliath” campaign fundraising race, something School Board President and candidate Greg Mikolai refuted, saying McVaney’s contribution was made before campaign finance reports were released for any of this year’s candidates. Mikolai also balked at Sluder’s suggestion at an Oct. 28 candidate forum that he and candidates Tom Parrish and John Williams would be influenced by donations from District 51 teachers’ union Mesa Valley Education Association.
“None of my donors will be negotiating a contract with MVEA,” Sluder said.
Mikolai said influence either comes from a donation or it doesn’t.
“How can anyone say the $5,000 doesn’t have strings attached but MVEA’s donation does? Wouldn’t they all have strings attached or not have strings attached?” he asked.
Mikolai, Parrish and Williams as of Oct. 27 had raised $9,742, $12,367 and $11,048, respectively. All but $4,041 of those donations came from local contributors. MVEA was the trio’s largest contributor, donating $3,000 each to Mikolai and Parrish.
SUPPORT FROM TEACHERS
The union also reported $2,431 worth of in-kind contributions for unsolicited campaigning in favor of the candidates. Mesa County Republicans have advertised and campaigned on behalf of Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder as well.
As of Oct. 27, the most recent data available, Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder each had less than $8,200 in contributions, even with $5,000 apiece from McVaney and $2,000 apiece from Ralph Nagel, president of Denver-based investment fund company Top Rock Liquidity Fund. Nagel and McVaney were the two largest single donors to the Douglas County School Board conservative candidates in 2011, each giving $10,000 apiece to their candidates of choice.
District 51 board members Ann Tisue and Jeff Leany, who have endorsed Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder, were in Douglas County Sept. 11 but said they have not met nor been in contact with McVaney. Tisue called him an “angel donor.”
Mikolai said McVaney’s donations equal “forces outside the county trying to influence us. They don’t know this county, they don’t know who we are,” he said.
MVEA President Darren Cook said he fears a repeat of McVaney’s large contributions to a school board race will lead to a repeat of certain reforms enacted in Douglas County, in particular the private school voucher program. Cook said private schools can refuse more complicated students, leaving public schools to try to provide services for expensive student needs with less money if vouchers siphon money from the district.
“This to me is step one in dismantling everything good about education,” he said.