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Idaho schools race draws independent spending

Fri., Oct. 22, 2010, 3:05 p.m.

BOISE - There are now three groups mounting independent campaigns for or against candidates for Idaho schools chief, with the addition of eastern Idaho personal care products firm Melaleuca Inc.

The company launched a TV ad campaign in southern Idaho late this week in favor of GOP Supt. Tom Luna, criticizing his Democratic challenger, Stan Olson, and reported Friday that it’s already spent more than $50,000 on TV and radio ads.

That’s on top of independent expenditure reports earlier this week from for-profit curriculum company K12 Inc. of Virginia, which is funding a separate $25,000 ad campaign for Luna; and an earlier effort from teachers across the state to form “Educators for Olson,” which has spent more than $60,000 since August, mostly on yard signs, and reported spending another $20,835 this week on a mailing.

Frank VanderSloot, Melaleuca chief, said he decided to launch his own anti-Olson ad campaign because he’d heard that the “teachers union” would spend $75,000 “wanting to buy their own guy in the office.”

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, which is funding the Educators for Olson effort, countered that her group is supported by small-dollar donations from thousands of teachers across the state. “It’s very interesting to me that the people who are in the classroom, in the trenches every day, who make very little money, have to battle against big corporate Idaho in order to do what’s right by our children,” she said.

VanderSloot is a conservative Republican multimillionaire with a history of big spending in Idaho political campaigns.

VanderSloot’s ad belittles Olson, the recently retired superintendent of the Boise School District, with a digitally altered clip from an Idaho Public Television debate in which Olson said he’s always struggled with math - a move that IPTV says improperly violates its copyrights.

Melaleuca sought permission from IPTV to use the copyrighted material a week in advance, and was specifically and firmly denied. VanderSloot said he thought IPTV’s response was “way out of line,” and he decided to go ahead with the ad anyway, and has hired copyright attorneys to battle over the issue with the state.

“We could have said what he said but then no one would believe it,” VanderSloot said. “We thought it was important to put it up there in his own words.”

Olson and Luna were asked in the debate whether they’d take the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, a requirement for high school graduation, and have their pay based on the results. Olson said he wouldn’t want to take the ISAT or any math test because of his lifelong struggle with math, a point he emphasized at length.

But he said Friday he didn’t mean he can’t do 10th grade math; Olson holds a doctoral degree in education, successfully completed advanced math courses in statistical analysis and research design for his degree, and oversaw a $200 million budget as superintendent of the Boise School District.

“What I was trying to articulate is that I certainly can do 10th grade math, but math has always challenged me throughout my life, and it’s a good thing, because I’m able to have the empathy and appropriate experience necessary to recognize that math is an issue for a lot of kids, and a lot of kids struggle with it,” Olson said. “Obviously I did not do a good job” getting that point across, he said.

“The answer was meant to describe a need in education that we have to address,” he said. Asked what would happen if he took the math portion of the ISAT, Olson said, “I’d probably pass, but that’s not the point.”

VanderSloot said, “We are trying to make the public aware of what was said in the debate.” The ad says, “Administrators should know and understand what’s taught within our schools. … That may disqualify Stan Olson.” Forty-five seconds of the 60-second ad consists of copyrighted material from the IPTV debate.

Peter Morrill, IPTV general manager, said, “We are not issuing them a license to utilize footage for their campaign purposes and … we would ask them to cease and desist.” The network will “vigorously” defend its copyright, he said, just as do networks across the country that air televised political debates. Morrill said the digital manipulation of the clip includes putting portions in slow motion, digital zooming-in and a digital insertion of an out-of-date Idaho Public TV logo.

Elinor Chehey, debates coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Idaho, which co-sponsors the Idaho Debates, said, “We do these as part of our voter-education effort, and not to provide fodder for campaigns to do mischief with. … It’s been a safe place for candidates to participate.” If debate clips can be used in campaign attack ads, she said, it “just gives more candidates an excuse to stay away.”

Morrill said IPTV, which has broadcast the Idaho Debates for the past three decades, has never authorized their content to be used in campaign ads. He said when candidates or organizations have tried to do so “a few times” in the last decade and a half, once contacted about the copyright issue, “the candidates and their campaigns have agreed to pull the ads immediately.”

The ads funded by K12 Inc., through a Nampa group called Idahoans for Choice in Education, haven’t yet surfaced. K12 provides the curriculum for the state’s largest online public charter school, the Idaho Virtual Academy.

K12 was founded by controversial former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett, who resigned from the firm in 2005 after he made racially charged comments on a radio show.

Olson has called on Luna to condemn K12’s involvement in the campaign, calling it “just more proof that Idaho students are not priority number one for Tom, but rather special interest groups who need to turn a profit from our kids and their test scores.”

Ken Burgess, a spokesman for Luna’s campaign, said, “Tom doesn’t have any control over those types of things.” By law, independent expenditures aren’t coordinated with the campaign they back.

Burgess added that if Olson thinks Luna should condemn K12’s campaign, “then perhaps he ought to do the same for the union bosses that are helping him out.”

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