Campaign donations, spending vary among school board candidates
An overview of committees, campaign spending and complaints in a race that has pitted one slate against another
Across town and online, campaign signs, door hangers, business cards and ads have been prominently displayed for the race to fill the five available seats on the Eagle County School District Board of Education. These campaign materials are the result of campaign donations and expenditures from the 11 candidates — and the two committees representing them.
Campaign financing for this election, per contribution and expenditure reports as of Oct. 27 on TRACER, has varied greatly between candidates and committees. The candidates and committees next report due will cover campaign donations and spending between Oct. 14 and Oct. 27 and is due Nov. 1, one day ahead of the election.
A tale of two committees
The largest recipient and spender in the election is The Community Coalition for Eagle County School Board — one of the two campaign committees in the school board race. The committee represents District A’s Kelly Alter, District B’s Lelia Conlin, District E’s Juan Peña, District F’s Michele Hartel Stecher and District G’s Dan Reynolds. This committee is also displayed as the “Vote Smart x5” candidate slate.
In total, as of Oct. 27, the committee has received $14,482.38 and spent $13,587.76.
These contributions have been all from local individuals, with the largest of donations totaling $625. Each of the five candidates associated with the committee donated $200 from their individual campaigns — a $200 donation received from the Colorado Education Association. Candidates Alter, Stecher and Conlin also donated personally to the committee amounts of $104.15, $100 and $200, respectively.
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Expenditures for the campaign are largely advertising fees (including to the Vail Daily, Facebook and for other materials), bank fees with additional consultant and professional services fees to entities such as graphic designer Jitterfly, freelance platform Upwork, data management company i3logix and general consultant Scarlett Greene in Denver.
The campaign’s registered agent on TRACER is Ashley Stevens, who is based in Denver. Locally, however the volunteer campaign coordinator is Wendy Rimel. Rimel also serves as the board chair of the Education Foundation of Eagle County, a private nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that works in partnership with Eagle County Schools. She is also the designated filing agent for both Alter and Peña.
Stevens is merely “a professional campaign bookkeeper who is helping us be as accurate, timely, and transparent in our reporting,” Rimel wrote in an email.
The other committee — People for Eagle County School District, which represents District E candidate Heather Bergquist, District A candidate Andrew Keiser, District B candidate Kyla Sink, District F write-in candidate Maribel Avila and District G candidate Susan Cunningham — has not yet filed any contributions or expenditures on TRACER as it was registered on Oct. 14 and does not have any filings due until Nov. 1. The committee’s registered agent is listed as Susanne Huxford, who also serves as the designated filing agent for Sink.
Huxford wrote in an email that the committee “supports candidates who prioritize the best interests of the children for Eagle County School Board.”
Huxford also serves as the second vice chair for the Eagle County Republicans but wrote that there is “no relationship” between this role and her role as registered agent for People for Eagle County School District. Kaye Ferry, the chair of the Eagle County Republicans, wrote in an email that Huxford was acting on her own as a filing agent for the committee and “did so without our knowledge or support.”
“I am simply the natural person responsible for maintaining all committee records and filing all reports on time for People For Eagle County School District,” Huxford wrote. “As per Article XXVIII Section 2.12.b. [of the Colorado Constitution], a ‘Political committee’ does not include political parties, issue committees, or candidate committees as otherwise defined in this section.”
According to Rimel, she and “previous school board members and other community leaders with long-standing experience in and commitment to public education” began looking for school board candidates over the summer.
“We called all of the principals of the schools in the districts where seats would be open and asked them for the most involved, thoughtful, supportive parents,” Rimel wrote. “We reached out and met with those parents to introduce them to the idea of running for the school board and ultimately identified three excellent candidates – Lelia Conlin, Juan Peña, and Dan Reynolds – to join our support of incumbents Michelle Stecher and Kelly Alter.”
Rimel wrote that these candidates were “individuals willing to serve and who were not mirroring a trend seen across the state and, frankly, the country, to bring extreme, partisan views to our community’s school board decision-making.”
In response to the large amount of donations to the committee, Rimel wrote that “with so many candidates running for five seats, it’s important to have the resources to communicate to thousands of potential voters.”
She added that in supporting five candidates, the amount is “in line with other contested elections” and called the committee a way to bring “fiscal and environmental responsibility to our campaign.”
Divided among five candidates on the “Vote Smart x5” candidate slate, the committee’s contributions per candidate amount to $2,896.48 — larger than all other individual candidate contributions in the race except Bergquist and Keiser.
In written responses, Alter, Reynolds, Conlin, Stecher and Peña expressed their gratitude for their inclusion in The Community Coalition for Eagle County School Board.
Peña wrote that the committee “has provided a very streamlined approach to campaigning,” and said he felt “honored” that the committee spent time getting to know him and his values.
Incumbent Alter, who also serves on the board for the Education Foundation of Eagle County, said she has worked “extensively” with the committee since she filed for re-election.
“We have met to strategize, help fundraise, pool resources, canvas our communities, attend meet and greets and simply support each other. The Community Coalition for Eagle County School Board has spent the money that it is has raised supporting the Vote Smart x5 candidates with clear and positive messaging,” Alter wrote.
Reynolds added that the committee members and candidates have been “talking to voters about the pressing issues, waving to motorists, and preparing to support each other with compassionate and reasoned decision-making if elected to serve.”
The response from candidates on the People for Eagle County School District slate differed.
In response to being asked what her involvement or interaction was with the People for Eagle County School District, Sink wrote, “I am running my own campaign independent and separate from any other campaign or organization.”
She also wrote that, “I am happy to have supporters help get the need for an early learning message, which is the cornerstone of my campaign, out to as many voters as possible.”
Cunningham also said she had no involvement to date with the group. “At this point in time, I haven’t had any involvement with People for Eagle County School District except I have learned they made coordinated signs with my name on it. I will process on Tracer as an in kind donation if required,” she wrote.
Between the individual candidates’ campaigns, Bergquist has had the largest amount of both contributions and expenditures. As of Oct. 27, Bergquist had received $12,632.10 in monetary contributions and had spent $8,142.60.
While many of these donations come from local contributors, Bergquist also received large donations — equal to or greater than $1,000 — from three out-of-state contributors.
When asked via email about these out-of-state contributions, Bergquist wrote, “I have been so touched to receive encouragement, support, and contributions from a wide range of individuals, many of whom have sacrificed financially to support the compelling vision I have shared for Eagle County School District. The contributors have ranged from part-time and full-time community members, to parents, and grandparents.”
Bergquist’s largest campaign expenditure of $7,175.38 went toward advertising, including yard signs, business cards and more. Advertising spends, regardless of medium, are the most common expenditures among all candidates, with bank fees rounding many of them out.
Following Bergquist, as of Oct. 27, Keiser has received the next largest amount of contributions, totaling $4,575, followed by District B candidate Kyla Sink with contributions of $2,638.07 and then by District G candidate Susan Cunningham with contributions totaling $2,580.40.
While most of these contributions were from local donors, Sink and Cunningham also had out-of-state donors.
Cunningham received a $1,000 donation from a donor whose address is listed in Texas on TRACER. Cunningham, in an email, wrote that this donation came from a Beaver Creek homeowner who “as a taxpayer she is interested in community development. She is excited I am taking a role in running for Eagle County School Board and is happy to support me.”
Sink also received two donations from out-of-state donors — $1,000 from her father and $250 from her stepmother, she wrote in an email, adding that their “stake in the election is me!”
Spending, however, between Sink, Keiser and Cunningham varies greatly. As of Oct. 27, Sink has reported $658.87 in expenditures primarily for advertising.
Cunningham has reported $1,951.79 in expenditures for advertising materials as well as food, beverages and meals including a few lunches with Jennifer Woolley, a Republican who ran for an Eagle County commissioner seat last November, and a campaign conference in Loveland in early October. Cunningham wrote in an email that this conference was hosted by Independence Institute and that she attended “to learn how school boards function properly.”
Independence Institute is a Denver-based think tank, which provides research and information on a number of issues including education, right to arms, FASTER Colorado Armed Teacher Training, constitutional studies and more.
Also as of Oct. 27, Keiser has filed one expenditure of $172.60 for bank fees.
On TRACER, there is also a complaint filed by Rimel on Oct. 8 with the Secretary of State against Keiser, Bergquist, Cunningham, Sink and District F write-in candidate Maribel Avila for failure to register candidate or committee (against all five), failure to report expenditure or contribution (against Keiser) and missing or improper disclaimer (against Cunningham). The complaint was received on Oct. 26 by the state’s election division.
Against all five candidates, the complaint stated that their campaigns failed to register a committee, are missing or have an improper disclaimed and failed to report expenditure. The complaint highlighted coordinated yard signs for the five candidates in the complaint.
Of this, Bergquist wrote in an email that “The complaint filed against me is politically motivated and frivolous and the Secretary of State has not made a determination to pursue.”
Sink wrote that the mentioning of her name in the “alleged complaint is without merit,” adding that “all of my contributions and expenditures have been filed and reported according to the letter of the law.”
The coordinated yard signs for Bergquist, Keiser, Sink, Avila and Cunningham now list the People for Eagle County School District committee on the bottom.
Of this complaint — which against Keiser, stated “failure to report expenditures” for yard signs, door hangers and newspaper ads — Keiser wrote in an email that “this is not the first time I have gotten called into the principal’s office, however, my campaign is committed to full financial transparency and accurate filings.”
He added that where information “may have been missed, it will be included and reports will be amended post haste so the public can be apprised of my campaign’s complete financial activities.”
Keiser also noted that he has been working with a “highly recommended company based in Denver to fulfill this responsibility for me,” since Sept. 17, 2021.
Cunningham wrote that of the complaint, which stated her campaign was missing disclaimer on a door hanger, “Disclaimers were attached to all my door hangers.”
No decision on the complaint has been made.
Avila, as well as the other write-in candidate for District B Bridget Russell, have not filed any expenditures or contributions via TRACER. Avila did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
For the remaining five candidates, donations to their individual campaigns included the $200 contribution from the Colorado Education Association. Some of these candidates have received single other smaller donations, though none exceeded $50.
Amy Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, said that recommendations and donations for school board elections across the state are made through a questionnaire and interview process with local associations and members. All announced candidates received a questionnaire from the group, and once returned to the local association, interviewed with them. That local group then makes a recommendation to the state association.
“Based on that recommendation, we recommend and support candidates who support students, educators and public education,” Baca-Oehlert said.
The contributions given as a result of these recommendations are from a statewide fund, which includes donations from educators across the state.