Colorado Springs churches aren’t the only ones getting involved in the Academy School District 20 Board of Education race. According to independent expenditure reports, the Springs Opportunity Fund spent $48,214 for a direct mail campaign supporting conservative candidates Derrick Wilburn and Amy Shandy.
The Springs Opportunity Fund is a dark money organization with a history of supporting Republican candidates in regional elections. In 2021, Springs Opportunity Fund spent $128,000 promoting the candidacies of Republican Colorado Springs City Council candidates Dave Donelson, Randy Helms, and Mary Elizabeth Fabian. The Springs Opportunity Fund also bankrolled campaigns of conservative school board candidates in Colorado Springs District 11, District 49, and D20, using a $180,000 contribution from Colorado Springs Forward, a dark money group headed by Colorado Springs businessman Phil Lane. Last year, Colorado Springs Forward was the subject of a campaign finance complaint after accidentally making illegal donations to El Paso County Commissioners Holly Williams and Cami Bremer.
This year, Springs Opportunity Fund also spent $144,532 supporting D11 incumbents Parth Melpakam and Jason Jorgenson, as well as candidates Thomas Carey and Jill Haffley, with direct mail efforts and digital advertising.
Recently published leaks from the Advocates for D20 Kids Discord server revealed the involvement of Joel Sorensen, who in addition to working for longtime political operative Daniel Cole, serves as the spokesperson for the D11 Achievement Alliance, a group similar to the Advocates for D20 Kids. In the Discord server, Sorensen worked to gin up support for both Melpakam and Jorgenson.
“D11 School Board member and conservative warrior Jason Jorgenson said at the previous D11 Board meeting that staff should not be allowed to ask students their pronouns,” Sorensen posted in February, amid controversy over the proposed pronoun ban. “This will become a D11 policy. The left is very upset at this news. Tonight is another board meeting and we’re trying to get as many people as possible to turn out in support of Jason. Whether it’s to speak, or to stand in solidarity when our speakers present. Would love your help.”
In August, Sorensen encouraged members of the Discord server to support Melpakam. “Hey y’all while you’re on Facebook go throw a like on Parth Melpakam’s re-election Facebook post,” he wrote.
Sorensen also encouraged Discord members to provide support for the conservative D11 board’s policies. “Tonight, D-11’s board is discussing a Parent Partnership Policy, which I would characterize as a form of a Parents’ Bill of Rights,” posted Sorensen in May. “They’re also facing a militant Teachers Union negotiating in bad faith and painting a false narrative in the public over negotiations. If you’re able, even if you’re not in D-11, please sign up to speak tonight to thank the board for their work.”
The Parents Bill of Rights was part of a package of model school board policies developed by former Moms for Liberty El Paso County co-chair Darcy Schoening and conservative education lawyer Brad Miller. In April, D49 and the Elizabeth School District adopted similar policies.
Jorgenson and Melpakam discussed the D11 Parent Partnership Pledge during a Sept. 16 forum organized by Representatives Rose Pugliese (R-El Paso County) and Don Wilson (R-Monument) and hosted by former Republican Senate candidate and KNUS radio host Deborah Flora. Flora is a board member of the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network (CPAN), an activist group that has advocated against LGBTQ and diversity policies in the Douglas County School District, which is currently facing a lawsuit for its alleged pervasive racism and bullying. Flora is also the creator of the film “Whose Children Are They?” which argues that the modern state of public education is part of a plot engineered by education pioneer John Dewey and teachers unions to enforce cultural Marxism, an antisemitic conspiracy theory popular in far-right circles.
“We didn’t want to call it the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ because we want teachers to feel empowered to take care of our kids as well,” said Jorgenson. “I think we did a really good job with this policy and balancing, you know, what what we want to pledge to parents, but also then asking the parents to bring their students to school prepared.”
Melpakam tied the passage of Parent Partnership Pledge to support for charter schools. “We put together this parent partnership policy and then captured on this infographic, which is easy for our parents to see that you guys have rights, you guys have a voice, you guys have a choice of the system,” he said. “We recognize one of the things that we do as a school board is recognize the value of Charters. Charters do a phenomenal job and it’s a healthy competition that they bring into our system.”
Sorensen also gave the Discord members a heads up about the upcoming Springs Opportunity Fund spending. “Keep in mind that there [will] probably be a soft side effort in the wings,” he posted on Sept. 29.
According to TRACER, Colorado’s campaign finance disclosure website, Springs Opportunity Fund shares the same office in Colorado Springs as Cole Communications, Sorenson’s employer.
Dark money isn’t the only spending that is concerning voters during this election season. “What does $40,000 buy you these days?” reads a Colorado Springs Independent letter to the editor from Rhonda Heschel. “In D11, it buys three months of marketing services to promote two members of the School Board running for re-election. Superintendent Michael Gaal approved $40,000 to hire Tsogt Research and Consulting for this 3-month gig. This firm has existed since April 2023 and doesn’t even have a website. The firm is unvetted, inexperienced and allegedly politically connected. This is a flagrant misuse of taxpayer funds.”
Melpakam was asked about this $40,000 contract by D11 board member Julie Ott during a Sept. 9 work session.
“It’s a trust issue,” said Ott. “It’s an informational issue to us. We’re supposed to be a team here. If we’re supposed to be a team and make decisions together, it just seems like that would have been a courtesy.”
Melpakam described the contract as a contingency, to help with board communications during a period when the district’s communications department was understaffed, similar to process used during the district’s superintendent transition period last summer.
“This was the same process that was put into place at that time to help the board out to get proactive communications,” said Melpakam.
Concerns about the contract also stem from the fact that the company, Tsogt Research and Consulting, has only existed in Colorado since April 7, 2023. The registered agent for the company, Michael Tsogt, graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 2022 with a political science degree and was a Koch fellow in 2019. Tsogt is also Facebook friends with Sorensen.
A June 22 email from D11 Superintendent Michael Gaal to D11 Chief Operations Officer Kris Odom, obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act, shows that the contract with Tsogt was sole-sourced at Gaal’s direction.
In an Oct. 14 email to community member, Melpakam wrote:
“To your question about Tsogt’s friendships and political affiliations, the District does not ask our contractors or our employees to share that type of information.
“This contract falls well within existing Board policies and protocols. Board Policy DBJ (in place since 1972) provides the authority to the Superintendent to approve contingency transfers for contracts below $100,000 and has been employed by other Superintendents for the successful day-to-day operations of our schools.”
While Melpakam claims that the district does not ask contractors or employees about political affiliations, not all of D11’s board agrees on that point. During the Sept. 9 meeting, D11 board member Al Loma justified the need for a communications team loyal to the board, and also suggested that the board should retain its own lawyer.
“We’ve had times where we’ve had our own director side with the other side against us,” said Loma, critiquing an employee’s social media activity. “In this day and age when you like somebody’s article you’re siding with them.”
The chat logs go back to last August and can to be downloaded here:
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