by Ivan Foley
A school district crossed the line.
The Missouri Ethics Commission has found fault with the Park Hill School District in regard to the campaign surrounding the district’s proposed tax levy increase last spring.
According to the school district, the ethics commission has determined that Park Hill crossed the line from informational into advocacy during the campaign of a proposed 32-cent tax levy increase.
As a result, the commission has issued a monetary fine to Park Hill and a written agreement between the school district and the ethics commission is being formulated.
That written agreement may or may not address future behavior and could reveal whether a portion of the fine issued to Park Hill has been “stayed,” meaning the district could face additional financial penalty if future complaints are deemed valid.
The fine was issued to Superintendent Dr. Scott Springston. School officials have indicated the fine was issued because of the wording in some written communications distributed by the school district.
What exactly will be detailed in the “written agreement” is not yet known. The Landmark this week sought answers from both the school district and the ethics commission. On Tuesday, school officials told the newspaper that school officials had signed a copy of the agreement and sent it to the ethics commission. The ethics commission will be signing a copy of the agreement and returning it to the school.
“MEC said they need to sign the hard copy we sent them in the mail, so they cannot get us the final version today. I am happy to send it to you when we get it,” Nicole Kirby, Park Hill’s media liaison, told The Landmark on Tuesday.
Asked why the $100 fine was issued to the superintendent, Kirby said: “Dr. Springston received the fine because he is the superintendent not because he made the statement.”
James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission in Jefferson City, told The Landmark on Tuesday afternoon that he could not comment on the Park Hill situation because an agreement “has not yet been signed and finalized.”
Klahr said he expects the agreement to be finalized soon and posted on the Missouri Ethics Commission’s website by the end of this week.
Klahr said when posted, the ruling should clearly explain “what happened and why the agreement was reached.”
Violations of ethics regulations are considered a civil matter and not criminal, Klahr said.
According to an emailed newsletter distributed by Park Hill last week, the ethics commission took issue with a statement that appeared in two communications sent out by the school district in advance of the levy election. The statement that drew the attention of the ethics board was this: “In order to prepare our students for 21st century college and careers, the Park Hill School District is asking voters to increase the levy by 32 cents.”
According to Park Hill, it was the first part of the statement that was the problem in the eyes of the ethics commission, an indication that the ethics board might be cracking down on publicly-funded statements that some might view as “scare tactics” or “hot button” or “inflammatory” in nature.
In its emailed newsletter that went out last week, Park Hill says: “When we communicated with the community about the levy, we believed we were carefully following the law about elections, which says we can only use public funds for information, not advocacy. We are grateful that our agreement with the commission provides more guidance for us and for other districts so we can be sure not to make any mistakes.”
Josh Blackman, a Park Hill patron, filed an ethics complaint against the school district following last spring’s election. The tax levy question, incidentally, was soundly defeated by voters, losing by a margin of 61% opposed to 39% in favor.
Blackman’s complaint alleged inappropriate uses of “taxpayer dollars, staff, students and other resources in violation of Revised Statute 115.646.”
In filing his complaint, Blackman enclosed two district “Connection” newsletters mailed by the school.
“The newsletters are extremely pro-levy, unnecessarily frequent and immediately preceding the vote. The Park Hill School District used taxpayer dollars to fund them and several other newsletters in part that promoted the levy,” Blackman told the ethics commission.
Reached by The Landmark this week, Blackman said he has not heard from the ethics commission since last spring shortly after he filed the complaint. He said ethics officials called him after he lodged his complaint with some additional questions.