MILLION-DOLLAR SCHOOL BOARD

A film by LOUIS ALVAREZ, ANDREW KOLKER, and PAUL STEKLER

A humble school board race in suburban Denver becomes a proxy battle between national political groups like the Koch Brothers and the teachers’ union, as even down ballot races become nationalized. We follow both right and left leaning members of the community as they tumultuously battle to gain control of the Jefferson County school board and by extension, the state of Colorado.

The Backstory:

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the flood of money in American political campaigns has been a constant topic of media attention, besides also being a staple of Bernie Sanders’ speeches and even part of Donald Trump’s worldview on corrupt politics.  That said, nothing is slowing down the increasing amount of money being donated and spent.  With the current trends, even dark untraceable money will go over the $1 billion dollar spent since 2010 this cycle.

And it’s not just national and federal elections.  Who’d have thought that a proposed local tax increase to provide a permanent funding source for the Columbus, Ohio zoo would attract outside money (in this case the Koch Brother’s funded Americans for Prosperity, whose efforts helped defeat the proposed tax). 

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

About the Film:

Last year, national media began being attracted to a battle over a county school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, just west of Denver.  A newly elected conservative majority had overturned union contracts, put in a merit system for teacher pay, and funded charter schools.  The news flash point was the board considering a proposal to change the AP History curriculum to reflect a more positive view of that history.  The response was a week of student protests and eventually a successful campaign to put a recall election on the ballot.

What set this conflict apart was the location.  Jeffco, as the locals call it, wasn’t a conservative bastion, but a true swing county.  Almost equally divided between Republican and Democratic voters in a largely well off electorate who turned out in elections, the saying was “as goes Jeffco, goes the state.”

Outside observers saw the recall as a battle between conservative interest groups like the Colorado branch of Americans for Prosperity and the Denver based libertarian think tank Independence Institute and the state and national teacher’s Educational Associations.  In fact, Americans for Prosperity had spent $350,000 to protect a conservative school board majority in nearby Douglas County that has also voided their union contracts and put in a school voucher program.  Talk was that the recall campaign funding would top a million dollars in both reported and unreported money.

With money pouring in from the outside over the direction of educational policy, the results of this local school board recall election suddenly had national implications.A

About the Filmmakers: 

Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Paul Stekler have been responsible for some of the most respected political documentaries of the past twenty years, bringing an anthropological perspective to the way Americans practice politics. Their work is known for engaging stories and memorable characters, with large dollops of humor and provocative points of view. Vote for Me: Politics in America, a four-hour PBS series on electoral politics and American culture, won a Peabody and a duPont-Columbia Journalism Award. Most recently, Getting Back to Abnormal, their look at race and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans, was shown on PBS’ premier documentary series POV. Other credits include Stekler’s George Wallace: Settin’ The Woods on Fire and Alvarez and Kolker’s People Like Us: Social Class in America and The Anti-Americans.