Dark money clouds IPS election

Stand for Children is at it again. The Oregon-based education advocacy group is spending big money to determine who gets elected to the Indianapolis Public Schools board.

That in itself could be cause for concern. But what’s really troubling is that the amount Stand for Children is spending and the source of its money are being kept secret.

If you or I give more than $100 to a candidate for school board or any other public office, the contribution is made public. And candidates have to report how they spend campaign money. But Stand for Children is carrying out a so-called independent campaign in support of the slate of IPS candidates endorsed by its Indianapolis branch. So under the law, it doesn’t have to tell us anything.

It is sending glossy mailers to residences in the IPS district, an expensive undertaking that you might expect in a race for mayor but not in a school board election. It did the same thing in the 2014 IPS election, and its favored candidates won by overwhelming margins.

Judging by the limited and vague information Stand for Children reports to the Internal Revenue Service on its Form 990, it’s a safe bet the organization spent $200,000 or more in Indy in 2014. The report says it paid an Indianapolis firm over $140,000 for printing and mailing services. It also reportedly paid individuals to stand at the polls and hand out fliers on Election Day.

That would be in line with what the group reported spending this year on school board elections in Nashville, Tenn., where it is now facing complaints that it violated campaign finance laws.

But Jim Scheurich, part of the local Our IPS group that is pushing back against Stand and endorsing a different slate, estimates the group is spending considerably more than that this year in Indianapolis. Based on the cost of the mailers and other activities, he thinks it is spending between $400,000 and $600,000.

Eric Weddle of WFYI News reviewed Stand for Children’s tax filings and concluded it spent at least $1 million in Indianapolis between 2011 and 2015, much of it to lobby the state legislature.

Where does the money come from? Stand doesn’t disclose that either, but it’s not coming from mom-and-pop donors. According to the group’s 990, it had individual contributors in 2014 who gave $2.5 million and $1.1 million. (Guidestar, which tracks nonprofits, says its top contributor has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

Stand for Children started in Portland, Ore., in the 1990s as a group that pushed for better funding for schools and children’s services. But it evolved into something very different: a political advocacy group that supports charter schools and test-based accountability and boasts of taking down teachers’ unions. In Indianapolis, it recruits and trains parent advocates and supports the current IPS policy of working with charter schools and opening charter-like “innovation network schools.”

As in 2014, Stand for Children is supporting IPS candidates who have no trouble raising money on their own. As of mid-October, the Stand-backed slate — at-large candidate Sam Odle and district candidates Michael O’Connor, Venita Moore and Diana Arnold — had raised a total of $100,000.

Much of their money is coming from the Indianapolis business and political elite – including Allan Hubbard, an economic adviser to President George W. Bush, as well as the political action committees of the city’s realtors and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

Some IPS parents and voters might find that troubling, but at least we know where the money is coming from and can speculate about the donors’ interests. With Stand for Children, we have no idea.

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