A handful of out-of-state billionaires pushing for charter schools and other "education reforms" have spent a sliver of their fortunes on East Baton Rouge Parish School Board races, records show.
They include a Houston hedge fund manager who got his start at Enron, the former mayor of New York City, the co-founder of LinkedIn, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the son of the Walmart founder Sam Walton.
John Arnold, Mike Bloomberg, Reid Hoffman, Laurene Jobs and Jim Walton have all contributed to help elect School Board candidates that support their school reform agenda.
Candidates and outside groups have raised more than $600,000 so far for this fall's School Board elections from all sources. The only race yet to be decided is in District 2 where Dadrius Lanus is challenging incumbent Vereta Lee.
Incumbent Vereta Lee and challenger Dadrius Lanus traded jabs at a forum Tuesday over who’s backing their campaigns and about their respective…
The deadline for candidates in these elections to disclose recent fundraising and spending was last Wednesday. The latest reports cover activity between Oct. 18 and Nov. 18. The next reports aren’t due until Jan. 17.
As of late Sunday, Lee, re-elected District 4 incumbent Dawn Collins, and unsuccessful challengers Cliff Lewis and Tammy Dabadie had not submitted reports. Those four individuals face daily late fines from the Louisiana Board of Ethics.
Arnold, the Houston hedge fund manager, and Walton, the son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, are by far the biggest donors so far, giving $160,000 and $100,000, respectively. Their largesse has gone to charter-school friendly education reform and business organizations that have been spending money independently on behalf of several School Board candidates.
Those organizations have reported spending almost $350,000 so far, close to three times what the candidates themselves have reported spending on their campaigns.
About $253,000 of that $350,000 has been spent on just two races: District 2 and District 3. In District 3, Tramelle Howard narrowly defeated incumbent Kenyetta Nelson-Smith on Nov. 6.
The other seven incumbents have been re-elected to new four-year terms.
Howard’s victory increased the size of a business-backed majority on the board from 6-3 to 7-2. That majority could increase to 8-1 if challenger Lanus beats incumbent Lee in Saturday's election.
Arnold is giving via Action Now Initiative, the advocacy arm of a private foundation he runs with his wife, Laura, that supports a variety of initiatives and candidates around the country. The Arnolds and their advocacy group have given nearly $1 million to Louisiana school elections since 2011.
The Arnolds’ latest infusion is split between two groups: $100,000 to Education Reform Now Advocacy, or ERNA, an advocacy group affiliated with the better known Democrats for Education Reform; and $60,000 to Future PAC, a political action committee of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
Walton, who gave money in his own name split his $100,000 three ways: $55,000 to ERNA, $25,000 to the Louisiana Charter School Association’s political action committee, and $20,000 to Future PAC.
Walton and his sister, Alice, have contributed more than $1.5 million to school elections in Louisiana since 2009.
Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, have spent far less than the Arnolds and Jim Walton: $4,000 and $5,000 respectively. They each gave contributions to Howard as well Chrisdelin Kelly Lyles, who lost her bid to unseat Collins in District 4. Both have contributed a lot more money to school elections in other states.
Caroline Roemer, executive director of the state’s charter school association, said organizations like the one she heads rely on a “handful of national donors” willing to invest in local School Board races as opposed to the many, often sexier, causes out there competing for their dollars.
“It takes money to run campaigns,” she said. “I would love to see more people invest in such campaigns.”
Barely a decade ago, local School Board candidates spent far less, maybe $5,000 to $25,000 during a typical election.
A 2010 survey asked sitting School Board members nationwide how much they spent on the most recent election campaign. In districts with more than 15,000 students — East Baton Rouge Parish has 41,000 students — only 10 percent of School Board member spent more than $25,000.
Roemer makes no apologies for helping to drive up the costs of local School Board elections, saying the stakes are too high to allow for the status quo.
“Frankly, we have sat around and allowed for generational failure,” she said.
The Capital region’s foremost business lobby says it supports placing a tax proposition on the ballot that would pay for “universal early chil…
Future PAC’s $60,000 grant arose from an application the Baton Rouge Area Chamber made for “funding support” to Action Now Initiative, said Liz Smith, senior vice president for economic competitiveness with the business organization.
The $60,000 is being used to promote a 10-part platform of policies that BRAC announced in July along with the candidates who support it, Smith said.
The platform calls for opening high-performing schools, closing underperforming schools and creating a special office to work closely with charter schools. It also called for the next School Board to commit to placing a tax proposition on the ballot that would pay for “universal early childhood education” in Baton Rouge.
FuturePac in October reported spending $35,000 on mailers and digital ads on behalf of incumbents Evelyn Ware-Jackson and Michael Gaudet, who were re-elected to districts 5 and 7.
Smith said the group’s November report, which has not yet been filed, will also include additional spending to support Lanus’s bid to unseat Lee in District 2.
Future PAC also contributed $32,500 directly to candidates in the six active school board races as well as $2,500 to School Board President David Tatman, who was re-elected after he drew no opponent.
Lanus has received the most from Future PAC, $10,000; that's about two-thirds of all the money’s he’s reported raising directly for his campaign.
A charter-school friendly group based in New York City is spending nearly twice as much as all the candidates combined who are seeking a seat …
Education Reform Now Advocacy and Stand for Children have reported the most independent spending on School Board elections so far, $191,000 and $91,000, respectively. They are national groups working through Louisiana chapters.
Both groups receive the bulk of their money from undisclosed donors who give to their parent organization based in New York City and Portland, Oregon, respectively, though they also receive money from named donors as well.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, is one. He gave ERNA $300,000 in June 2016, via his philanthropic arm. In November 2017, Bloomberg gave the related group, Democrats for Education Reform, $50,000. The following month, he gave Stand for Children’s independent expenditure committee $25,000.
One reliable donor to past Baton Rouge School Board elections has not been as visible this year.
Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby, who put up tens of thousands of dollars in 2010 and 2014, has made just three donations thus far this cycle, totaling $6,000.