School race war chests dwarf past elections
Former school board members and candidates have mixed feelings about the more than $47,000 price tag on this fall’s District 51 School Board election.
Campaign reports filed Tuesday showed six of the seven candidates in the Nov. 5 election have already brought in more than any local candidate in recent history, ranging from $5,269 for Pat Kanda and $12,012 for Tom Parrish.
Secretary of State records show just five of the 27 people who ran for District 51 School Board seats between 1999 and 2011 collected donations. Former board member Diann Rice collected $5,235.56 in 2007, current board president Greg Mikolai collected $5,000 in 2009, candidate Rose Pugliese received $3,004.68 the same year, current board member Ann Tisue got $2,013.51 in 2011 and former board member Dan Robinson got $330.77 in contributions in 2003.
Former board member Marcia Neal said she recalls spending about $1,000 on her first campaign in 1997, “which was a lot back then” for a school board race. She said school board hopefuls in those days campaigned by attending numerous public forums, shaking hands, and printing a few yard signs or flyers. This year, candidates are paying for thousands of flyers, brochures, business cards, signs and ads, thanks in part to large donations.
Retired businessman and Greenwood Village resident Ed McVaney, who founded a private Christian school in Douglas County that signed up for that school district’s voucher program, donated $5,000 apiece to District 51 candidates Pat Kanda, Mike Lowenstein and John Sluder. Local teacher representation group Mesa Valley Education Association donated $3,000 each to candidates Greg Mikolai and Tom Parrish and offered to print campaign materials and distribute them for Mikolai, Parrish and candidate John Williams.
Neal said she suspects the money from both McVaney and MVEA comes with ideological strings attached but she’s OK with that.
“In some ways it’s too bad it’s become political but everything we do now is political. Why shouldn’t this become political?” she asked.
Robinson said large donations from out of town “contaminate the process” and called on Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder to return the $5,000 contributions from McVaney.
“It’s objectionable to me to accept money from an outside source not even knowing who that person is,” Robinson said, referring to comments from Kanda and Sluder that they had not spoken to or met McVaney. “It allows school board members to be for sale to outside influence.”
Robinson said sizable donations from MVEA are different because the association invites every candidate to be interviewed and because the group “has a stake” in the board election because the association negotiates an annual contract with school board members.
Cindy Enos-Martinez, school board member from 2007 to 2011, said she doesn’t believe candidates should ever accept large donations, no matter where or who they come from. Enos-Martinez had no campaign funds in 2007 or when she ran for re-election in 2011 and relied on a few yard signs and word-of-mouth to get her message to voters.
“You’re either going to vote for me because you feel I’m the best person or you’re not going to vote for me,” she said. “If you don’t have the support out there, it doesn’t matter how many signs, billboards or benches you have, If you don’t have support you’re just blowing money.”
Enos-Martinez said she campaigned more heavily when she ran for Grand Junction City Council and Mesa County commission because there was more community controversy and interest in city and county politics during those campaigns. Pugliese, who was elected to the Mesa County Board of Commissioners three years after her school board bid in 2009, said the school board election is starting to gain more local attention as more people become interested in education reform.
Pugliese said the Mesa County Republican Party told her they did not get involved in non-partisan school board elections when she ran in 2009. Conservative interest in the board grew after her race and after the 2011 board race, she said. Mesa County Republican Women this year endorsed Sluder, Lowenstein and Kanda and volunteers have been canvassing for the trio. Pugliese said conservatives getting elected to the Douglas County School Board in 2009 and 2011 and implementing reforms “inspired a lot of people on the Western Slope.”
“What I think is happening is they never ran school board races like a real race. If I got a $50 donation, it was a big deal,” Pugliese said. “I think people are starting to see it as a real race and are putting money into it like a city or county election.”