Political group criticizes school board campaigns

Complaint filed in Cd'A; Post Falls 'endorsements' debated

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A Republican activist group is questioning school board election campaigns in Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene.

The Kootenai County Reagan Republicans filed a letter of complaint with the county prosecutor and the sheriff's office alleging that the Coeur d'Alene Education Association violated several Idaho statutes by offering compensation to candidates running for election to the school board.

"Frankly, I'm shocked that no one's brought this up before," said Jeff Ward, president of the Reagan Republicans group.

Marty Meyer, a member of the CEA, which is the local teachers union in the Coeur d'Alene School District, told The Press that the organization does not give money to candidates, although its members may donate as individuals.

School elections are nonpartisan, and candidates and their campaigns are not subject to campaign finance disclosure laws.

"This sounds like a red herring, bringing this out during an election when people are trying to focus on issues that are important to students and parents," Meyer said.

In Post Falls, the Republican group is criticizing endorsement information on a flier distributed by school board incumbent candidates Dave Paul and Michelle Lippert, and asking why the two weren't joined by their opponents when they spoke at recent parent-teacher organization meetings.

Post Falls School District's attorney, Charles Dodson, said there was no violation of state law and the incumbents have voluntarily agreed to not use the endorsement information for the rest of their campaigns.

"I have not seen the kind of stuff that's been going on in the last month or so here in Kootenai County," Jeff Ward said. "I've never seen anything like this before in school board elections."

Ward signed the May 9 letter of complaint sent to Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh and Sheriff Rocky Watson. The letter requests an investigation on behalf of Kootenai County Reagan Republicans and the citizens of Kootenai County.

The complaint alleges that the teachers union violated state statutes prohibiting "bribery in official and political matters" and "gifts to public servants by persons subject to their jurisdiction."

The violations stem, Ward says, from letters sent by the local teachers union, inviting school trustee candidates to participate in the association's "recommendation process." The letters state that a candidate "may receive critical organizational and financial support" should the teachers union decide to recommend the candidate to its members.

Meyer, who signed the candidate letters and coordinated the interviews for the education association, said the process has been in place for years.

"We do this with legislative or school board candidates, to find out what their views are before deciding whether to support them, and to make sure our members have information about candidates and issues that are important to them," Meyer said.

Ward said the problem is that the teachers union contracts directly with the school district.

"Contracted organizations can't give money to the people that make decisions about their contract," Ward said. "If they had a separate political action committee, that would have been fine."

The way Ward sees it, the teachers union is "offering money for terms."

Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh told The Press his office would be working with the sheriff's department to evaluate the complaint and determine what kind of investigative effort might be necessary.

In the Post Falls election, Paul and Lippert's flier states that they were endorsed by seven parent-teacher organizations or parent advisory groups in the district.

While representatives of those groups say no formal votes on endorsing candidates were taken, most of those in attendance at the recent meetings in which Paul and Lippert asked to speak at support the two.

Ron Lahr, a KCRR board member who is also co-president of the West Ridge Elementary PTO, said he was shocked at first to read that the PTOs would "endorse" candidates. But then he learned that no formal votes were taken.

"In my opinion, the PTOs did nothing wrong," said Lahr, adding that he believes the candidates shouldn't have listed the "endorsements" if a vote wasn't taken.

Paul said he believes the complaint is knit-picky, but the candidates agreed to remove the reference from future materials related to the campaign.

"I guess it boils down to how you define endorsement," he said. "I would define it as 'support' for a candidate. There was a clear understanding of a strong level of support from those in attendance."

All of the principals, who are a part of the organizations and were present at the meetings, agree that most in attendance support Paul and Lippert.

School organizations listed included Ponderosa, Prairie View, Seltice, West Ridge, Post Falls Middle School, Frederick Post Kindercenter and Post Falls High.

Principals said PTOs are loose-knit groups that rarely take formal votes or get involved in politics. The organizations generally focus on improving school conditions for students and staff through fundraisers. Decisions are generally reached through consensus.

Lahr said granting the requests of some candidates to speak at meetings and not inviting the others in return also doesn't pass the "smell test" of election campaigns. He also said it's obvious that the candidates' reasoning for speaking to the PTOs was to promote their campaigns since the election is Tuesday and they normally don't speak to the groups otherwise.

But school district attorney Charles Dodson said allowing candidates to speak at such meetings does not violate state law.

"I do note, however, it may have been a wiser choice for the PTOs, upon accepting the request, to authorize opposing parties to also express their views and desires ... ," Dodson wrote in a memo. "Be that as it may, that is a matter of choice for the PTOs and not for the school district to impose."

All of the principals said that, had Bonnie Beaulieu, who is challenging Paul, and Robin Moser, who is challenging Lippert, requested to speak at their PTOs, they would have been granted the time as well.

Paul said he does not find it unusual for school board candidates to meet with PTOs to discuss the election.

Lahr also believes a statement on the candidates' flier mischaracterized a Press editorial published prior to the March supplemental levy in which the newspaper praised the district's leadership for its fiscal responsibility.

Mike Patrick, Press managing editor, re-iterated the newspaper's view.

"The Press editorial board did not endorse any school board candidates at any point this year," Patrick said. "We did praise the Post Falls School District's leadership for strong fiscal responsibility, a belief we still hold."

Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said he has emphasized to staff that it can't use district resources or time to engage in politics.

"I have no evidence that school resources have been used inappropriately," he said.

Paul said school board elections are supposedly nonpartisan, but he believes this one has become partisan and is an extension of a contentious legislative session in which sweeping education reform laws limiting collective bargaining by unions and implementing merit pay for teachers were passed.

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