GOLDEN – As time ran out to turn in petitions to run for the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education, those close to the race took no time starting – and ending – support for some of the candidates.
On Sept. 5, administrators in Jefferson County woke up to an email in their school email accounts from Jon DeStefano, executive director of the Jefferson County Administrators Association (JCAA).
According to DeStefano, the email was intended to be a fact-based email letting members of the JCAA know who was running for the Jefferson County Schools Board of Education.
“The deadline to file in order to run for a Jefferson County School Board seat this November has come and gone,” the email begins.
However, after that, some believe DeStefano may have crossed the line in regards to campaign finance laws, Jefferson County Public Schools policies and overall campaign ethics.
DeStefano and the JCAA are free to campaign for whomever they wish, but some administrators questioned the use of Jeffco resources.
Diana Wilson, chief communications officer for Jeffco said the district doesn’t believe the email violated campaign finance laws but spoke with DeStefano, who is not an employee of the district, about the concerns it raised.
“We did explain that some people felt this was a violation,” Wilson said. “Although technically it isn’t because it didn’t advocate for any candidate. The district has pretty specific guidelines as far as what we can and can’t do for campaigns.”
At question was the last sentence in the email. After pointing out that inbumbent Ron Mitchell is running unopposed, the letter takes more a political tone than an informative one, critics say.
“This is very good news for Jefferson County Public Schools,” DeStefano wrote. The retention of a board majority insures continued stability for our school district and support for our new superintendent, Jason Glass.”
With Mitchell running unopposed, he along with Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens guarantee a union-friendly board majority for at least two more years, regardless of how the other two seats turn out.
Mitchell, Harmon and Rupert helped unseat three conservative board members with a recall because of reforms not supported by the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) and its members. The new board eventually forced out the superintendent, who they saw as a product of the reformers.
Glass, Jeffco’s controversial new superintendent, who is now the highest paid superintendent in Colorado, has a long history of supporting more liberal, union-backed policies that include anti-school choice movements, collective bargaining and resistance to performance-based pay models, among other things.
Although Wilson is technically correct that the letter is likely not in violation of campaign finance laws after a 2017 Colorado Supreme Court ruling, Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said it doesn’t make the email right.
“There is always a problem when public resources are used to influence an election,” Toro said. “(Government entities) will tell you that they should be allowed to say things like the Mayor’s park plan is a success without opening them up to being able to sue them. But there is a line drawing that needs to be done, and that’s what the legislature needs to wrestle with.” The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in July that “a ‘contribution’ requires that (1) something of value (2) be given to a candidate, directly or indirectly, (3) for the purpose of promoting the candidate’s nomination, retention, recall, or election.”
Although district email was utilized, it didn’t meet the requirement for promoting a candidate’s election.
Also concerning was a second email sent by DeStefano just minutes later that tried to clarify his position but appeared to try to hide it as well.
“I am sorry if any of you perceived my message in this manner,” DeStefano said. “It was not intended that way, nevertheless, to be cautious, I am recalling the original email message and working with district staff to have it removed from the server.”
District email retention policies require that emails be kept for 30 days, so removing it from the server would be in direct violation of the policy.
Wilson said the emails were recalled from those who had not yet opened them, but they were not removed from the server and are available under open records laws.
DeStefano said he honestly did not mean anything by his comments and apologized for it in email to Complete Colorado.
“I do not believe the email I sent was a violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act,” DeStefano said. “I certainly did not intend it to be, and I am sorry some people perceived it that way.”
Glass also addressed the subject on the Advance Jeffco site.
“Public employees don’t check their Constitutional rights at the door when it comes to elections, but there are some important restrictions on their behavior when they are at work,” Glass wrote. “These restrictions are laid out in Colorado’s Fair Campaign Practices Act. For the convenience of Jeffco Public Schools employees, we’ve put together a memo on this for your review. Let’s all commit to having a fair, nonpartisan, Jeffco school board race in 2017.”
Toro reiterated he hopes the state legislature will take a closer look at the law.
“Whether the Supreme Court was right or not, it really opened the blue print for school districts to spend money on elections,” Toro said. “We really need the legislature to step up and fix this.”