Investigation Unearths Inappropriate Emails Sent From Douglas County (Colo.) School Accounts
Teachers and administrators who work for the Douglas County (Colo.) School District (DCSD) used taxpayer-funded government e-mail accounts to illegally campaign for specific political candidates and ballot initiatives, according to e-mails obtained by Media Trackers Colorado. The e-mails, which were released pursuant to open records requests placed with the county, were originally requested by Parent LED Reform, a Douglas County-based educational reform group.
Elizabeth Walhof, a professional development coordinator for Douglas County schools, sent an e-mail from her “dcsdk12.org” account to Susan Meeks’ campaign saying that she wanted to help support her political run by stuffing stuffing envelopes.
“If I weren’t out of town, I would totally be there. Good luck!” Walhof wrote. After Meeks lost the election, Walhof emailed again to say, “I’m so sorry about how the vote turned out…Please know that I’ll be happy to support you should you ever chose to run again!” Meeks is now vice president of Strong Schools Coalition.
Colorado state statute provides specific language prohibiting the use of government resources for political or campaign purposes. Title 1, Article 45 of the Colorado Revised Statues outlines the “Fair Campaign Practices Act” and includes the following sections:
“The purpose of this section is to prohibit the state government and its officials from spending public funds to influence the outcome of campaigns for political office or ballot issues. Colo. Common Cause v. Coffman, 85 P.3d 551 (Colo. App. 2003), aff’d, 102 P.3d 999 (Colo. 2004).”
“This section tends to promote public confidence in government by prohibiting the use of moneys authorized for expenditure by political subdivisions for specified public purposes to advance the personal viewpoint of one group over another. A political subdivision’s use of moneys that were authorized for expenditure for the benefit of an insured to oppose the passage of an amendment proposed by an insured is the type of conduct the general assembly intended to prohibit by the enactment of this section. Denver Area Labor Fed’n v. Buckley, 924 P.2d 524 (Colo. 1996).”
Brian White, a social studies teacher at Thunder Ridge High School, used his taxpayer-funded dcsdk12.org e-mail account to forward e-mails to a co-worker at Thunder Ridge all but accusing the Douglas County Board of Education of corruption in its educational reform efforts. On April 4, 2012, White e-mailed Dave Strickland, a history teacher, with links to stories attacking the credibility and motives of the county board. One of the organizations referenced by White — Taxpayers for Public Education — was created to oppose the reform efforts of the Douglas County school board.”
“The first link [the one to TPE] is as close as I can find that the BoE is working for outside interests,” White wrote. When Strickland asked who wrote the article, White replied, “Somebody from the Strong Schools Coalition, I think.”
The Strong Schools Coalition is a pro-union group headed by President Laura Mutton.
Laura Mutton applied for a county employee position last year on the District Accountability Committee for the Douglas County School District. The District Accountability Committee Liaison is an employee of the School District appointed by the Superintendent according to DAC bylaws Article 6 Section B. Although she was never hired to the position, two Douglas County principals and a facilitator endorsed her via their “dcsdk12.org” accounts. Michael Weaver, a principal at Mountain Vista High School, and Kara Shepherd of Mountain Ridge Middle school e-mailed in support of her application and request for help. David Larson, Facilitator of STEM and Gifted and Talent Programs, told Mutton that she would be great. “You have my vote,” he wrote.
When news of the improper e-mails began to leak last Friday afternoon, pro-union interests took to various social media outlets to decry the release of the e-mails. Most of their criticism improperly characterized the leaked e-mails as being “personal” or “private,” even though all of the released e-mails were either received by or sent through taxpayer-funded government e-mail accounts, which are clearly covered by the Colorado Open Records Act.
For example, Mary McGregor, wife of a Douglas County teacher, stated that she believes “No Private Citizen should be allowed to be targeted via the CORA…OY!!…WHY IS THIS EVEN ALLOWED TO HAPPEN?!!” Shewent on to explain at length:
“This I find deplorable! Yes, we all have opposing view sides, but why take it to such a low, vile level?!! Accessing one’s private email is not ok! Specifically targeting people is not ok! What if ‘our side’ did that?! what if I went and did an open records request between certain people? see this is not ok. I am not naive and I know the world is not fair- Oh Lord Almighty do I know from what I suffer through daily and I my eventual Finality because of it…I think those that know me know that I prefer open dialogue and to keep it ‘nice’ during the conversations. but this isn’t the presidential elections!”
McGregor ended with a comment on Parent LED Reform: “SMDH. Just SMFDH. [NOTE: acronym for ‘Shaking My Damn Head.’ Just ‘Shaking My F***ing Damn Head.’] Absolutely appalled and more reason to not like PLR. I am one to be able agree to disagree so that we can work as a community to help our children and teachers.. but this?! This group- aw hells naw!”
Other worried union members and supporters claimed the request for such emails to be simply “benign” and not of much use except to “try to scare teachers and parents to death about their private information getting out.”
Meghann Silverthorn, a member of the Douglas County Board of Education, shared her thoughts on the newly released e-mails.
“Yes, emails are subject to CORA requests,” she posted on Facebook last Friday. “This is not just in the school district; as an arm of government, the District is required to provide these items.”
“[The Colorado Open Records Act] is a tool for citizens to use…Our government is better for it,” she concluded.