March 10, 2012 in City

Shawn Vestal: Hint of truth gives credence to school critics

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Last June 6, Michael Miller, a teacher at Shadle Park High School, wrote a series of email messages regarding school board candidate – now school board member – Deana Brower.

According to a complaint filed with state officials, Miller described Brower in one note as “INCREDIBLE.” In another, he urged a teacher at Lewis and Clark to invite Brower to meet with teachers there. In another, he wrote to Jenny Rose, president of the Spokane Education Association, granting her permission to send a message he’d written on behalf of Brower to “other buildings” to help them arrange events.

In several emails on that and the following day, one very narrow slice out of thousands of emails included in a complaint filed with state elections watchdogs, teachers and principals communicated about the planned “Doughnuts with Deana” event – on district email accounts.

That’s the rub: Teachers and the teachers union have a right to their opinions, to help candidates, even to organize political events at schools during non-school hours. Brower was the union’s preferred candidate, and the teachers’ support for her is not surprising or, in and of itself, improper.

But they’re not supposed to use school time or resources to do it. Doughnuts with Deana was before school. But the emails were on district accounts.

Big deal? Perhaps not. The Public Disclosure Commission will determine the level of a problem here. But district critics are using missteps like that one to mount a massive public-records fishing expedition at Spokane Public Schools, an effort that is sending 4,000-plus teachers, counselors and administrators scouring thousands of email messages and paper files in search of words like “levy” or the name of particular candidates.

The requests are overly broad, and they’re diverting resources from the mission of the schools. And they are coming from people whose opposition to the local school district seems, sometimes, less than fully hinged.

But they are not baseless.

Miller acknowledges that he made mistakes, and says he’s become more vigilant about following the rules. He is far from the only one mentioned in the PDC complaint, which was filed by district critic Laurie Rogers in September and which is under investigation. Rogers names a long list of district employees in her complaint, alleging they used district resources to promote Brower and the passage of a levy in 2009 and 2010. (She seems less troubled about exchanges she herself engaged in with a Ferris teacher using a school account, in which Rogers touted Brower’s opponent, but that is doubtlessly different.)

A lot of her complaint comes across as conspiracy-minded and poorly informed. She uses examples of district communications about the levy – which are allowed, so long as they don’t explicitly tell people how to vote – and paints them as unilaterally pernicious. She cites emails that show a chumminess between district administrators and the group that promoted the levy. She complains that the teachers union didn’t invite Brower’s opponent, Sally Fullmer, in for doughnuts – which it is not, of course, obligated to do.

Sometimes, Rogers seems not to distinguish between individual teachers, the teachers union, the administration and “the district.” She refers to the union breakfast, for example, as “these district events.”

It’s all a vast, vague conspiracy.

A lot of people would like to dismiss the complaint as merely that. The problem is, there’s also a little fire under all that smoke. There is a degree of closeness and coordination between administrators and levy supporters – I don’t know that it crosses a legal line, but it does put the make-believe nature of the “inform but don’t promote” guidelines for district communications regarding levy elections in sharp relief. Teachers did use email accounts to promote Brower’s campaign; even if you consider this a minor matter, they crossed a line that the district frequently reminds them not to cross.

And it has unfortunately provided fuel to a group of people who can run for a very long time on very little fuel. Rogers and other supporters of Fullmer have the district in the midst of an unprecedented paper chase to find evidence that Brower and the levy were the beneficiaries of illegal electioneering.

Rogers is seeking all documents with any mention of “levy” or “levies” from 2006 to 2010. Breann Treffry is seeking all correspondence with the media (including me and several S-R colleagues) from 2008 to 2012; Paul LeCoq is seeking all documents regarding levies during the past year; Fullmer has asked for any communication that mentions “Sally Fullmer, Sally, Ms. Fullmer, Mrs. Fullmer, other candidate or she.”

Or she.

Rogers and Fullmer didn’t respond to requests for an interview. LeCoq said he had filed his request after learning of Rogers’ complaint and wondered if there were other problems like it.

“If there’s nothing going on that’s wrong, nobody has anything to worry about,” he said.

As for Rogers, she’s been battling with the district over a number of things. She blogs furiously about the school district and the media, and her criticisms range from the math curriculum to bloated administrative salaries and the way she’s been treated by administrators. She says she’s not affiliated with the Citizens for Responsible Taxation – the obnoxious opponents of any and all school levies – and has objected to my referring to her as a “conservative.” I’ll just note that her blog is at the top of the list of links to other resources on the CFRT site.

It’s disappointing that the district, and especially classroom teachers, must spend so much time and effort on these requests. And it’s ironic that these folks – who express so much concern over administrative waste and bloat – are contributing to one of the most wasteful paper chases imaginable.

Most disappointing, though, is that there’s just enough in Rogers’ complaint to make one wonder if there isn’t more.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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