How the Koch brothers and other billionaires are staging a take over of our public schools

Courtesy Thompson Reform Watch

Pam Howard is a member of the Thompson School District Board of Education. It’s a district that spans Larimer and Boulder Counties; from Estes Park to Berthoud to Loveland. Her kids went to Thompson’s public schools, with her youngest just heading off to Princeton University this August.

Howard is in the minority on the seven-person school board. That minority is a group of three women, called disparagingly by the board majority “the three moms,” she says. They have spent two years battling a board majority of conservative “reformers,” who are pushing the agenda of out-of-town billionaires, from whom they’ve received a small fortune in the form of campaign contributions, flyers and push poll operations in return.

That board dynamic — “reformers” vs. “moms” — signifies a marked change for Thompson. It is now a political battlefield, and the casualties of war seem to be families and teachers, who are leaving the district at a disproportionately high rate. The shots fired come in the form of an ongoing lawsuit between the school board and the teachers’ union; policies that have limited free speech and public comment; millions of dollars in wasted funds; a complete devolution of civility at board meetings; and the force-feeding of a conservative educational reform agenda that promotes charter schools, implements pay-for-performance for teachers and devalues preschool.

No one saw it coming.

Denise Montagu has sat on the Thompson board since 2011. She, and her kids, went through district schools, and she was approached to run for office because of all the charity work she had done in Loveland.

From 2011-13, the Thompson School Board operated in good faith with each other as it always had. There was one exception on that board though, Montagu says, and his name was Bob Kerrigan.

Kerrigan was voted into office in 2011. He campaigned on bringing a private industry voice to the school board and lessening the budget for the teachers’ union. Montagu and Lori Hvizda Ward, a current board member who sat in on those early meetings, say Kerrigan often possessed a lone opinion, but that in the interest of fairness, the other six members of the board obliged him on exploring issues like making families pay for bussing and bringing in his personal recommendations for the vacant superintendent position.

As time went on, though, Montagu says she began to suspect Kerrigan was more than just a tough person to work with; that he might have an agenda. She says school board emails suspiciously started showing up on Tea Party websites, and there were rumblings from other board members that Kerrigan was trying to persuade them outside of meetings to consider reform policies.

Kerrigan’s solidarity (or defiance) culminated at a board meeting in October 2013. Kerrigan made a motion on a discussion point that failed to get a second. Board member Leonard Sherman commented that the motion was a veiled attempt to prohibit people who had relatives employed by the District from running for school board. Sherman said the timing was “odd” because there were two candidates, non-reformers, running for school board that year who had relatives employed by the district. As Sherman pointed this out, Kerrigan interrupted him and started yelling loudly and repeatedly, “How dare you!” and “You’re making stuff up!” Kerrigan rose from his chair and pointed at Sherman, and the episode lasted for 15 seconds before order was restored.

Sherman had hit a nerve with Kerrigan surely, but he had also pointed out that outside forces were afoot in Thompson.

Four of seven board seats were open in 2013, and four reform candidates — Bryce Carlson, Carl Langner, Donna Rice and Rocci Bryan — were financially backed by two well-connected billionaires: Alex Cranberg and Ed McVaney. Cranberg owns a Denver-based oil and gas company and is founder of the Alliance for Choice in Education Scholarship Fund (ACE), which supports educational reform ideas like school vouchers. McVaney is the retired founder of software firm JD Edwards, and an ACE board member. ACE shares many board members with Colorado Concern, a group that pulls the proverbial strings of the conservative agenda in Colorado.

The four reform candidates, financed by Cranberg and McVaney, out-raised and outspent their opponents by tens of thousands of dollars. That doesn’t include the promotional support in the district from ACE, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups.

Three of the reformers won, and with Kerrigan, it gave the conservative reform movement a majority. Then things started to change.

“We are constantly pitted against attorneys” 

At the first meeting after the new board majority was sworn in, Kerrigan, now board president, dropped a small bombshell at the end of a three-hour meeting. He said that at the next meeting, on Dec. 18, the board would discuss and then vote on hiring a board attorney; a position the Thompson School Board, and a majority of other boards, had never had. The district has had an attorney at the board’s disposal for years, an accommodation whose efficacy had never been brought into question.

Montagu, Howard and Hvizda Ward (the non-reformists), were shocked that an action with such large financial and civic repercussions would be brought up and then voted on so quickly. Kerrigan said he had done his own research to find a suitable board attorney.

It was Brad Miller, a graduate of the ultra-conservative Leadership Program of the Rockies, a group that is tied to the Koch brothers and Alex Cranberg. (Kerrigan and reform board member Bryce Carlson are also Leadership Program alumni.) Miller founded Charter School Solutions, which helps charter schools start and operate. Miller is also the attorney who was hired simultaneously by the board of Jefferson County Schools where another reform majority has similarly taken control with the financial backing of the same conservative forces as those in Thompson.

Kerrigan and the board majority were so eager to hire Miller that they actually presented a signed contract dated Dec. 5, 2013 between the school board and Brad Miller’s law firm — six days before the need for a board attorney was ever mentioned in public.

Montagu was irritated with the lack of transparency, so she inquired with Miller about who had contacted him. In an email, Miller said Kerrigan contacted him about the creation of a new “innovation school,” basically a district-initiated charter school that has flexibility with curriculum, staff and budgets. Miller mentioned that he also had multiple conversations with Rice, Langner and Carlson (the incoming board majority) before Nov. 20, adding that he didn’t violate sunshine laws because they were not yet sworn-in board members. Sunshine laws, like Prop. 104, require certain negotiations and meetings on school boards to be public.

Given that the board majority had talked with Miller about a position, signed a contract and discussed creating a new school before the other three board members had even heard the name Brad Miller, the community in the district fired back. Crowding the Dec. 18 meeting room, the audience erupted in a minute of applause when the board voted to delay the vote on Miller’s hiring. They also postponed the hiring discussion of Amy Attwood, a noted conservative lobbyist, whose already-written-up contract was included in that week’s agenda.

Attwood wouldn’t be hired, but it took only a few weeks for the board to reconvene and hire Miller. At the same meeting where they approved Miller’s contract, the board voted not to hear public comment.

“If the board wants to hear four hours of public comment tonight, and we don’t get anything else done, that’s the will of the board,” Kerrigan said. It wasn’t the will of the board, as you might imagine.

Kerrigan expressed his view on public comment at a January 2014 meeting, saying, “Public comment is really a privilege for you [the community] to speak to the board. It’s not state statue that the board has to allow this.”

And the board majority has taken that literally. The board majority voted to cut public comment sessions from three times a month, to once a month. Miller, who was ostensibly hired to “improve student achievement,” was often consulted at these meetings where policies that stifled public input were approved.

Simply put, the “reformers” had effectively developed a system to implement their agenda. Here’s a case in point:

In early February 2014, the board heard a presentation about the designs for a new school slated for construction by I-25, an area where a significant influx of families had occurred. The construction of the new school would be funded in part by tax increment financing, or TIF, a tax on people in a certain area that is used to build infrastructure in that same area.

The district had about $4 million from TIF to start building. Staff recommended to the board that if they waited to pass the design plans, interest rates and construction costs would rise, causing the overall price of the project to go up.

Despite that information, reform board member Donna Rice motioned to table the discussion for six months. The conservative majority agreed, citing that TIF funding is risky. Howard (in the minority) made a motion for public comment, as there were a large number of residents from the proposed school area. Kerrigan reluctantly agreed to a vote, before Rice protested, “Mr. Chairman, we have a lot to do tonight.” The audience started to boo, and Rice scolded them, saying, “Would you be polite?” The audience laughed.

So Kerrigan asked another reform majority member Carl Langner if he wanted to hear public comment. Langner is an old oilman from Texas with no clear political ambition, but who follows suit with the reform board members. That night, though, he agreed with the minority and asked to hear from the public.

Kerrigan turned red. Langner’s yes meant the public would get to speak. Kerrigan immediately turned to Langner and said, “Realize this is probably going to be an hour and a half,” as if to change his vote. Kerrigan hemmed and hawed before ultimately relenting and calling a formal vote, starting at the opposite end of the dais of Langner.

When it got to Langner, he was the deciding vote on whether to allow public comment. The old man hesitated and Kerrigan stared him down. “No,” he voted quietly, and the audience left, incredulous.

Flash forward to October 2014 when the plans for the new school were finally agreed upon. Estimates from the board, the union and staff indicate it cost the district as much as $2 million by waiting so long. The new school will be smaller and won’t have ideal features because of the wait.

Asked to speculate on why the board waited, Montagu says it could be because the reformers don’t like TIFs, or because they were holding out for a charter school to be built on that site — the reason Kerrigan reached out to Brad Miller in the first place.

There are more instances of agenda-pushing like 2014’s ongoing efforts to institute a pay-for-performance pilot program for teachers and provide “equitable pay” to the district’s two charter schools — both key tenets of the national school reform movement being pushed by the Koch brothers and other like-minded conservatives and their organizations. But the biggest issue facing Thompson caused by the reform board majority is their ongoing legal battle with the teachers’ union.

Every year, the teachers’ union and the school board each come up with “critical questions,” which are guidelines for what they want to accomplish in contract negotiations. The Thompson School Board didn’t do that in early 2015, and by April, they hadn’t developed critical questions to negotiate with the teachers’ union, the Thompson Education Association (TEA).

That is, until Bryce Carlson (of the board majority) read a list of about 20 critical questions at a meeting in April. The board minority hadn’t seen the questions nor did they know Carlson would be speaking. Carlson’s questions included those that would suggest implementing pay-for-performance for teachers, removing TEA privileges and removing or reducing pensions, yet another Koch brothers agenda item.

Carlson asked attorney Brad Miller to work with the superintendent to come up with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) based on his recommendations. Minority board member Hvizda Ward said that would violate sunshine laws, and the district human resources director, Dr. Bill Siebers, said it violated interest-based negotiations. The board majority didn’t care.

Andy Crisman, president of the TEA, says they tried to accommodate Carlson’s last minute critical questions and returned with an MOU. But, at two meetings in May, the board reformers denied the agreement. The board majority then refused to go into mediation, and so the TEA filed a lawsuit saying the board negotiated in bad faith and never had any intention of agreeing on a contract.

It’s funny. In one of Carlson’s first public comments as a board member, he felt the need to say apropos of nothing, “The idea that we’re trying to blow apart the teachers’ association or anything of that nature just really isn’t the case.” And here the teachers’ association is suing the Thompson board for never intending to sign a contract.

The board majority has continued down the anti-union rabbit hole. They rejected the arbitrator’s finding in August 2015 that they had negotiated in bad faith. (“Give us some respect. Please. You’re out of order. And disrespectful to top it off!” Kerrigan told the booing audience when the board majority voted to reject the arbitrator’s ruling.)

The court imposed an injunction on the school board, requiring them to maintain the 2014-15 contract conditions with the TEA. By that point, the board had spent $80,000 battling the TEA, and $78,800 on Brad Miller. The board moved to appeal the injunction, but this time they had some outside funds to work with.

On Sept. 16, Kerrigan announced that the school board had accepted a $150,000 donation from the Daniels Fund with the express intention to use those funds to fight their case against the TEA in court. Brad Miller solicited that donation without direction from the board. The Daniels Fund is another conservative money-giving organization, whose president is Linda Childears, a member of Colorado Concern and a former board member of ACE, which the Fund still supports. Daniels Fund also has given upwards of $500,000 to date to the Douglas County school board in their legal battle to implement a school voucher system.

The decision to pursue litigation will now likely be up to the new Thompson board which will be elected this Nov. 3.

A tale of two (other) districts 

What happened to the Thompson School Board happened simultaneously in Jefferson County, and happened four years prior in Douglas County. But those two districts have reacted differently to the reform takeover: JeffCo is attempting to recall its conservative board members, while DougCo plugs away as the reform “model.”

In JeffCo, the three members that make up the reform board majority were voted into office in 2013, making the same claims of transparency and school choice that all the reformers make. There was immediate backlash. The board hired the aforementioned attorney Brad Miller, and the longtime superintendent Cindy Stevenson resigned. Board President Ken Witt shut down meetings and limited public comments. They’ve tried to institute pay-for-performance and have had tense negotiations with the teachers’ unions.

Students walked out of several JeffCo schools last year when a change was proposed to the AP U.S. History curriculum to be more “patriotic.” (Montagu says that has been discussed in Thompson as well.)

JeffCo parents and students clearly took notice of the changes. Citizens gathered more than double the required signatures to put the seats of the three board majority members up for recall. Their competition will be the familiar conservative funders, as well as some unlikely opponents, like the increasingly conservative Denver Post, which wrote in opposition to the recall vote a few weeks ago. The Post also endorsed Tea Party candidates Ken Buck and Cory Gardner in 2014.

In Douglas County, however, the reformers are rolling. Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, who served under Ronald Reagan, wrote a paper called “A model for the nation?” about DougCo’s reform transition. In 2009, a crop of reform candidates swept into office, buoyed by nearly $35,000 to each candidate from Cranberg and Ralph Nagel, a Denver investor and another member of ACE, as well as TV ads from Americans for Prosperity.

The new DougCo majority hired a superintendent that agreed with their agenda, while the same policy changes to stifle public interaction were enacted. In 2013, more money flowed in to support the conservative majority, who won despite many citizens protesting the board.

Part of what makes DougCo “a model for the nation” is its demographics, which are similar to those in JeffCo and Thompson. They all have fairly large Republican constituencies amongst suburban middle-class, mostly white communities. The school board votes in 2009 and 2013 were low-turnout years, which favored the reformers.

The Colorado Education Association says the reform movements in DougCo, JeffCo and Thompson are all they’re aware of in the state at the moment. But it’s not just in Colorado that these massive reform takeovers are occurring. In cities like Newark, New Jersey, Chicago and Portland, as well as states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Tennessee, there are well-documented efforts by many of the same funders to flip school boards. Douglas County may be the “model,” but there are tests running everywhere.

For the model to work, it has to be sustainable. What happens in Thompson and JeffCo in this election could have national implications.

The new class of reformers 

There are differences in the way the 2015 Thompson School Board election is being financed. No longer are Alex Cranberg’s, Ralph Nagel’s and Ed McVaney’s names plastered on state campaign finance filings. As communities have wised up to the buzz-names to look out for, those funders appear to have channeled and delayed their funding, making them less obvious to voters.

In Thompson, four reform candidates announced their run for the four seats up for grabs. Montagu, Howard and Hvizda Ward (the current board minority) each say they’d never heard of any of the candidates despite having volunteered in the district and in Loveland for decades.

The first glimpse the community saw of the reform candidates was at a debate hosted by Loveland 912, a small, ultraconservative group. Howard and non-reform candidate Jeff Swanty say they weren’t even invited to the debate, but reform candidates Aimie Randall, Tomi Grundvig and Bruce Finger talked at length about their reform positions.

The new candidates’ affiliation soon became crystal clear. Randall wrote on Watchdog Wire, a conservative blog, “Americans for Prosperity managed, in a two-day summit, to give me an identity, a purpose, and a method.” Finger was the campaign manager for connected conservative Kevin Lundberg. And Pam Howard filed suit against Grundvig and Bob Schaffer, head of the Leadership Program of the Rockies and principal of a Fort Collins charter school, who wrote a message of support for Grundvig on the school’s website.

In the Oct. 15 campaign finance filings, Randall, Grundvig, Finger and Vance Hansen all showed $1,000 contributions from “A Organic Consulting,” a supposed Berthoud business run by conservative Tom Lucero for web design and promotional materials. A look at the candidates’ four websites shows that they are identically designed with the same talking points slightly reorganized.

At a League of Women Voter’s debate last month, the four reform candidates delivered canned speeches about the virtues of school choice and liberty, sometimes clearly reading prepared responses. They also denied that they were reformers, and they each said they had only accepted money so far from people they knew, laughing at how little they had raised.

Which is true, according to filings, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Larimer County Republicans and Liberty Watch, another ultra-conservative group, each sent out flyers in October on behalf of the reformers.

There are ugly bits, too. Non-reform candidate Swanty says that as a political attack, some outside group is circulating material that says he’s a Scientologist — an allegation loosely based on a 1990 Wall Street Journal report about his employer, Allstate Insurance.

There are now live and recorded phone calls going to Loveland and Berthoud voters in support of the reform candidates. Some are push polls, while residents claim others are simply recorded messages from Randall, Finger and Grundvig talking about tenets of educational reform.

Mailers and phone calls are expensive, and the reform candidates — considering the amount of donations they claim they’ve received — seem unlikely to have paid for them themselves. Considering the reform movement’s overall game plan, it seems likely the funding is coming from the same conservative sources previously outlined herein. But how do reform candidates and reform funders find each other?

There are similarities across the state in school districts where reform candidates have sought office. Some seek school board positions after having served on boards of chambers of commerce, city councils or worked on conservative political campaigns. Others connect with funders when they attend summits or conventions as was the case with Randall and Americans for Prosperity.

An AFP spokesman, when asked to describe the process in Thompson, wrote in an email that although they “do not endorse candidates, they did hold an education summit in Lakewood on Sept. 27 highlighting the importance of pay-for-performance, school choice and equal funding for all public schools.”

And though they “do not endorse candidates,” AFP Colorado released a statement on Oct. 25 proclaiming a “six-figure educational initiative involving mailers, door to door canvassing, online messaging and calls to JeffCo neighbors.”

It’s just a roundabout endorsement, like those coming from nice-sounding front groups like “Kids are First,” a “project of the Independence Institute,” which promotes material that shares their conservative agenda. And these groups use information supporting their agenda from sites like ColoradoSchoolGrades.com — as featured on 9News as a way for parents to check school performance — but is in reality, a site funded by AFP, ACE, the Daniels Fund, the Independence Institute and others.

Graduating out of reform 

It seems likely that if the reform agenda worked, then parents, students and teachers wouldn’t be leaving the Thompson School District in droves. But they are.

Crisman, the TEA president, says teachers are leaving Thompson at a faster rate than other districts in the state, and that it’s not because they fear pay-for-performance in theory or dislike charter schools. It’s because they feel trapped.

“They don’t feel that sense of empowerment, and they feel like things are being done to them,” Crisman says.

Matt Bell, a senior at Loveland High School, says students at the school understand what’s going on with the school board and most, if not all, support the removal of the reform majority.

Montagu and Howard say that if they win re-election and the board majority is flipped, their first orders of business will be to fire board attorney Brad Miller, end the legal battle with the teachers’ union and give the $150,000 back to the Daniels Fund.

But taking back the board is a tough road considering the “reform” candidates are likely to far outspend their opponents when all sources and avenues of funding are considered. Howard, Montagu and to a lesser extent Dave Levy are well into the tens of thousands of dollars in donations, much of which has come from small donations from community members.

The reformers did a lot in two years. It might be years before Thompson shakes the stigma of being a Tea Party district, Crisman says. But the ultimate fate of reform is in the hands of Loveland and Berthoud voters.

“I feel a sense of energy in this community around this issue that I haven’t felt before,” Crisman says. “I know, however, that this is a reflexively conservative community in some ways, but I also know that this community really values Loveland setting Loveland’s agenda. They don’t like feeling used.

“They don’t like the idea of someone from the outside pulling all the puppet strings.”