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Spokane Public Schools employees violated state election laws

A state investigation showed Spokane Public Schools employees violated campaign laws when they used public property to promote a school bond and a levy and assist in a board candidate’s campaign.

The Washington Public Disclosure commission ruled 33 school district employees were in violation, mainly for using the district’s email and computers inappropriately, and 16 employees have been fined a total of $1,700. The violations stem from 2009, 2011 and 2012 elections involving bonds, levies and a school board race.

“Use of facilities is probably the most common complaint the commission receives,” said Lori Anderson, a Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman. But, “It’s uncommon to have this many people charged as part of one complaint.”

Employees will have to use personal funds to pay the fines, said district spokesman Kevin Morrison.

“Just as an employee can’t use a school gym to support or oppose a candidate or the school levy, they can’t use email for the same purpose – either directly or indirectly,” said Superintendent Shelley Redinger. “We have informed employees about the law and we even have a policy on it, but email has become so easy to use, people don’t often think about it.”

Spokane Public Schools has 3,226 employees, 1,758 of whom are classroom teachers. District officials have conducted training sessions for staff and faculty to prevent a repeat of the violations, and those sessions will continue annually, school officials said.

The investigation began in 2011 after Spokane resident Laurie Rogers filed a complaint with the commission. She recently won a lawsuit against the district when officials failed to provide public records related to promotional materials on the 2006 and 2009 bonds and levies. Documents obtained from Rogers’ records requests provided the commission with most of the evidence in this case.

Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.

The Public Disclosure Commission reviewed nearly 900 emails and other documents during the investigation.

Employees’ violations fell into five categories. Fifteen people, including former superintendent Nancy Stowell and several principals, fell into the first group of people who sent one or two election-related emails. None of them was fined because the commission considered their use minimal.

The second group’s uses also were infrequent, but district facilities, rather than just computers and email, were used to coordinate campaigns, said Anderson, the commission spokeswoman.

Morrison, the district spokesman, is named in this group. He responded to an email thread agreeing to update his contact information for campaign activities. In the second instance, he sent an email from his district address to his personal address as a reminder about a campaign activity.

He called the citation and fine “a teaching moment.”

The third group used facilities and student instruction times to promote campaigns or candidates, Anderson said. The fourth and fifth groups used more facilities or their uses were more frequent.

Some employees’ emails contained subject lines promoting candidates, so each email sent was considered a violation. Others reserved classrooms for meetings about the bond and levy, involved students in promoting the bond and levy campaign or sent out invitations for meeting a school board candidate.

The commission held over decisions on two employees until next month: Assistant Superintendent Mark Anderson and Ferris teacher Jennifer Walther.

Anderson was a conduit for many emails and employees asking for campaign information. Therefore, he responded to numerous emails.

The commission is reviewing his penalty amount, said Lori Anderson, who expected it to increase from $300 to near $1,000. “PDC staff had looked at comparable violations and apparently felt his fine might have been low,” she said. “What I kept hearing from the commission is frequency is a big issue.”

Walther, ironically, engaged in several email conversations with Rogers, who filed the complaint, about supporting a board candidate. She also organized what the commission found to be a politically slanted debate to help the more conservative candidate. There were 126 pages pertaining to Walther in the investigation.

The teacher would not admit to committing any violations.

Commission member Kathy Turner, referring to all involved in the case, said Thursday, “Frankly, they should know better.”

Said Redinger, “I do believe staff members are doing what they thought was in the best interest of kids and their schools. But I do believe strongly we need to follow the law.”

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