School levy backers deny allegations of wrongdoing
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:38 PM
"Questions about potential illegal activities and sleazy actions by the pro-levy Citizens for Better Schools Committee drew a quick and strong reaction from the group last week. Citizens for Better Schools members said they were working within the law and were appalled by the accusations. In a letter to the News-Times, Oak Harbor resident Bill Burnett said he was concerned about personal information collected by the committee and statements made by committee co-chair Lynn Goebel during a recent Oak Harbor School Board meeting.In his letter, Burnett objected to what he said was the committee's suggestion that school district employees who had not voted should be approached about their non-support of the levy. He also questioned the group's acquisition of voter lists and parent directories which were used to find out who had not voted.I believe it may actually be illegal for school district employees to campaign for or against a levy proposal on school property during the school day. CBS encouragement of school district employees to counsel other district employees about their suspected political views appears to be an effort to circumvent the laws on these matters, Burnett wrote. Besides that, CBS actions, and those they suggest, are simply both sleazy and an invasion of privacy.The Citizens for Better Schools Committee, a group consisting mainly of parents in the district, formed several months ago to promote a $2.6 million maintenance and operations levy for Oak Harbor schools. In a May vote, the levy fell well short of the 60 percent needed for passage. Since the vote, committee members have been reviewing polling information to see why the levy failed. They hope to put some form of the proposal back on a ballot next year.Our thought was just to be smarter for the next campaign by knowing what worked and what didn't, said committee co-chair Kathy Chalfant. We certainly didn't get any special privileges or lists that aren't available to the public.The list of people who did and did not vote was a public document legally obtained, said Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair. She said such lists are available for purchase by anyone, and are often used by political groups to organize or analyze campaigns.Another list of parent names and addresses sold to the committee by the school district was also legal, according to district superintendent Rick Schulte. Before releasing the list, Schulte consulted with the state's Public Disclosure Commission and was advised that such lists of parents and staff are public records. Unless the district has a policy that restricts access to everyone, it cannot restrict public access. He said the district had previously released similar lists to PTA groups and Army/Navy recruiters, so the precedent had been set. According to Schulte, parents are given the opportunity to have their personal information withheld from the list prior to each school year. The majority permit the information to be printed. The Public Disclosure Commission also advised the district to charge a fee for the document covering the cost in labor to prepare it. The committee paid $25 for the list.By cross checking the voter list with a sampling of district parents and staff, the committee estimated that about half of parents were registered to vote and 27 percent actually cast a ballot in May. They also found that about 76 percent of the district's teachers and about 66 percent of the district's non-teaching staff voted.We don't know how they voted, just whether they voted, said Goebel. She told the school board that the committee was ready to campaign for the levy again, but she appealed for their support.We must be joined by teachers, administrators, classified staff and parents in this endeavor, she said. The school board and superintendent must take a leading roll in voicing what is broken in our schools.Burnett said he thinks Goebel's appeal might encourage district personnel to break the law by campaigning during work hours or on district property. Schulte said district employees understand the law and he was not aware that anyone had crossed the line.I believe people bent over backwards not to do that, he said.Burnett said last week that he had no first-hand knowledge of illegal activity but felt that Goebel's speech to the board was more of a demand than a request for support, and that she may have been suggesting things that were inappropriate."