It’s still hard to say how much money shaped the outcome of New Mexico school board races.
The public won’t have a full picture about campaign spending in the five largest school districts until Dec. 7, when reports detailing donations and spending from mid-October until Election Day are due.
Only candidates running for seats in Albuquerque Public Schools, Rio Rancho Public Schools, Gallup-McKinley County Schools, Las Cruces Public Schools and Gadsden Independent School District are required by the state to file campaign finance reports.
For the 84 other school districts in New Mexico, the public is in the dark.
Candidates running for school boards governing fewer than 11,000 students don’t have to disclose any donors or spending at all. This year, that includes Santa Fe, which historically had to report, but lost students. Those running for board seats in districts such as Farmington schools, which has a little more than 11,200 students enrolled this school year, also weren’t subject to campaign finance rules.
Lack of transparency around school board races comes as these local elections have become battlegrounds amid right-wing organizing to limit curricula and ban books about race, climate change and LGBTQ people.
Moms for Liberty, a national organization on the forefront of banning books in school libraries, supported candidates in New Mexico, but did not issue formal endorsements.
Moms for Liberty has been classified as an anti-government group with ties to extremists by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and its local chapter founder Sarah Jane Allen publicly championed candidates in Albuquerque.
A legislative effort to require all New Mexico school board candidates to disclose raising or spending more than $500 during a campaign, regardless of district size, failed in the House Education Committee last year. Advocates for the bill said they hope to bring similar legislation back in future sessions.
Joe Guillen, the executive director for the New Mexico School Boards Association, said he will still oppose any effort to expand campaign finance reporting efforts, saying it would be too burdensome and potentially discourage candidates from running in small districts.
However, there was agreement in one area — keeping school board elections nonpartisan. His organization’s top priority is “not making educating children a partisan issue,” Guillen said in an interview earlier this month.
“All citizens and candidates that step forward to lead schools should not be faced with political pressure from any source in terms of the positions that they take or the decisions that they make,” he said.
But both candidates that lost and those elected to serve on school boards who haven’t started their terms yet said that ideal does not reflect the reality of donations, endorsements or campaigning.
José Aranda, a first-time candidate who lost in the Las Cruces Public Schools District 5 race, said he was inspired to run after the pandemic, saying the public health emergency disproportionately impacted New Mexico students.
“I’m of the opinion that school boards should not be so political,” he said, referencing Republican-led pushback on masking in schools, and book bans.
“They were supposed to be learning ABCs and 123s, and instead, they’re learning about the ugly politics of the adults across the nation,” Aranda said.
Aranda did not file a campaign finance report with the New Mexico secretary of state’s office. He said he did not raise any money for his campaign.
Santa Fe Schools
This year, the Santa Fe Public Schools district dropped below the 12,000-student mark, exempting their candidates from reporting campaign spending to the New Mexico secretary of state’s office.
In the one contested race, incumbent Sarah Boses voluntarily disclosed her fundraising and spending, reporting $1,836 of in-kind donations. These in-kind donations included buttons, mailers, stamps and yard signs.
On top of her Oct. 17 filing, Boses said she received just under $300 in additional in-kind donations of fliers and paid $287 to the Democratic Party for a mobile text campaign in the days before the election.
Boses said while the ideal is nonpartisan elections, that “isn’t realistic” for how campaigns are run. Not requiring financial disclosures could lead to further issues, she said.
“You create a pretty easy situation for platforms and parties to pour large amounts of money into the races, and no one will ever know about them,” Boses said.
Boses, the school board’s president, received more than 72% of the vote in 2023. She said it was a clear message that voters did not want “culture war issues in Santa Fe.”
Patricia Vigil-Stockton, a candidate endorsed by the Santa Fe County Republican party, ran against Boses on a reactionary platform of “parents rights,” including agitating around the Fiesta Court in Santa Fe Schools, and targeting a recently passed state law which bars public entities from preventing reproductive or gender-affirming health care, either directly or indirectly.
Vigil-Stockton declined to voluntarily disclose money raised and spent for her school board run.
She correctly stated that she is not required by any law that requires campaign finance reporting and said she did not have to report campaign donations or expenditures.
John McKenna, a challenger in the race, who only received 341 votes — about 6% of the vote — did not file campaign finance reports voluntarily, or respond to Source NM’s request.
Las Cruces Schools
In New Mexico’s second-largest city, Las Cruces, Patrick Nolan won the District 1 seat with 57% of the vote and had a late bout of fundraising. In his most recent campaign finance report filed in October, Nolan raised $3,335, but told Source NM in an interview that he raised about $4,000 just before the election.
He said he spent the “vast majority of that” on two mailers and a flier redesign with new endorsements.
His opponent, Joseph Sousa raised $5,200 in four donations and spent $1,278 in the campaign.
Sousa’s largest donations came from Doña Ana County Republican Chair Kimberly Skaggs for $2,500, and another for the same amount from her company 50 State DMV.
Sousa filed a second campaign finance report on Oct. 17 showing he did not raise any money in the days leading up to Election Day.
Las Cruces had four candidates in school board races who appeared not to file campaign finance reports, even though it’s required for the district. This included Aranda, Daniel Castillo, Abelardo Balcazar and Dania Gardea. None of those candidates won their races.
The second district race in Albuquerque has shown to be the state’s most expensive school board race so far, with candidates spending more than $50,000 combined before early voting.
Candidates did not voluntarily disclose their spending between Oct. 17 and Election Day, and did not respond to Source NM by press time. These candidates met their requirement to disclose their spending up to Oct. 17 with the New Mexico secretary of state.
Ronalda Tome narrowly defeated District 2 incumbent Peggy Muller-Aragón, the current vice president of the school board, by fewer than 300 votes. Muller-Aragón raised just over $50,000 in contributions since May 2023. Her largest contributors each donated $10,000 to the campaign, according to campaign finance reports.
The first was from the Committee to Elect Robert Henry Moss, a Republican candidate that ran unsuccessfully for the N.M. House in 2022.
The other was New Beginnings LLC, a company that has residential and day services for people with disabilities.
Her third-highest donor was a political action committee NewMexicoKidsCAN for $5,000.
She spent just over $21,000 before Oct. 17, most of that — more than $17,000 — on fees for a Republican consulting firm based in Nashville, Tennessee.
In contrast, Tome received endorsements from the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, along with several unions, including some of her top donors.
This included $5,000 from the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico.
She received another $5,000 from the Albuquerque Teachers Federation Committee on Political Education.
A third donation of $3,000 came from a PAC run by the Southwest Mountain States Regional Council of Carpenters.
Tome spent $3,235 for political consulting from Roadrunner Strategies in Albuquerque, but spent the most on print advertisements, according to campaign finance reports from Oct. 17.
Heather Benavidez won the District 4 seat in a landslide, receiving 87% of the vote over opponent Stephen Cecco, who had a failed bid for the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2020.
Benavidez said she did not have the exact figures for how much more she raised after Oct. 17, but that it included a donation from Sen. Martin Heinrich. In 2022, Benavidez lost a Democratic Party primary for state treasurer.
Benevidez’s top donations included $5,000 from The American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico.
She received another $5,000 from the Albuquerque Teachers Federation Committee on Political Education. A third donation of $3,000 came from a PAC run by the Southwest Mountain States Regional Council of Carpenters, giving the carpenter’s PAC two wins on the Albuquerque school board.
Benavidez spent $6,796 through Oct. 17, more than half of that on campaign literature and mailers. She did spend $1,617 on campaign consultants from Roadrunner Strategies in Albuquerque, according to campaign finance reports filed on Oct. 17.
In an interview, Benavidez said campaign finance reports can reveal potential policy positions.
“It’s a really good tool to see who is donating to who,” she said. “The thought universally is [asking] who we’re beholden to, based on who’s donated to us,” she said.
Cecco’s largest donation came in at $2,000. In the 2023 school board race he raised $6,571, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Cecco spent a little over $3,000 before Oct. 17. About $1,500 was spent on campaign mailers and messaging services and about the same amount on campaign consultation with Josh Little, based in Albuquerque, according to campaign finance reports.
Both Muller-Aragon and Cecco were supported by Allen, chair of the local Moms for Liberty. They both lost at the polls.
Rio Rancho Schools
Rio Rancho Public Schools Board President Amanda Galbraith ran unopposed in District 2, and according to campaign finance reports, spent nothing and received no donations.
In the contested race, Beth Miller, a 30-year educator, defeated Ramon “Swoops” Montaño by a margin of 335 votes for the District 4 seat.
Miller raised $2,295 in donations, all from individuals. She spent $1,197 all on “campaign paraphernalia/misc.,” according to her Oct. 17 campaign finance filing.
Montaño lost his 2022 run for a New Mexico House of Representatives Seat. He raised no donations according to the Oct. 17 campaign finance report, instead using $984 of his own money for campaign fliers and mailers.
McKinley-Gallup County Schools
Kevin Mitchell won reelection to the District 1 seat for a fourth term by a margin of 76 votes over challenger Leonard Notah. Mitchell did not raise any donations, according to the Oct. 17 campaign finance reports, instead spending $1,203 of his own money on radio and print ads, fliers and mailers.
Notah raised one $100 donation from a family member, in addition to the $1,225 he gave to his campaign, according to campaign finance reports. He spent just over $1,000 all on campaign paraphernalia.
Priscilla Benally, an incumbent in District 3 who ran unopposed, did not file any campaign finance reports.
Gadsden Independent School District
Challenger Christian Lira unseated incumbent Armando Cano by a 66-vote margin. Both candidates reported spending $0 and reported no donations up to Oct. 17 in their campaign finance reports.
Claudia Rodriguez, ran unopposed in the District 3 race. She did not file any campaign finance reports, according to the secretary of state’s office.
In District 4, incumbent Daniel Castillo narrowly won by 35 votes over challenger Hector Giron. Castillo has no campaign finance filings from this election, or the 2021 election, and has $6,100 in outstanding fines from the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office.
Giron raised $500 in four donations, and also spent $4,000 on his campaign, according to the Oct. 17 campaign finance report. He spent $3,869 on campaign paraphernalia.
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