Referendum opponents accuse Berkeley schools of campaigning
Three days before Berkeley County voters will be asked to decide if the school district should issue bonds worth $198 million to build and renovate schools, the focus of the campaign has shifted.
What the law says
State ethics law prohibits using public funds, property or time to influence the outcome of an election, but it does not prohibit using public resources to prepare informational materials, conduct public meetings, or respond to news media or citizens' inquiries, according to the state Ethics Commission.
The charge is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or one year in jail.
Additionally, Berkeley County School District's policy “Staff Participation in Political Activities” prohibits distributing or posting campaign materials, using district communication to promote or solicit, and influencing or attempting to influence anyone to vote for or against a candidate.
Daniel Island lawyer Josh Whitley, the leader of a group called Berkeley Citizens for Sustainable Education, said Friday he plans to file a complaint against the district with the state Ethics Commission.
“Win, lose or draw on this referendum, they have set a poor example for our schoolchildren of breaking the law and trying to cover it up,” he said. “They need to be held accountable.”
The district has maintained that it has done nothing wrong.
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Whitley believes the district violated state ethics laws by having employees work on the campaign during business hours and using district resources.
After outgoing board member Donna Marino made a similar claim, Whitley filed a request with the district under the state Freedom of Information Act for documents that he believes support his claim.
Whitley said he will file his ethics complaint after he has a “complete response” to his FOIA request. He is waiting for copies of emails.
Whitley offered this week to drop his FOIA request if the district issued a written apology and admitted guilt, but the district declined the offer.
Scott Marino, who is running unopposed for the seat that was held by his mother, has filed a similar request.
Marino, who is married to Whitley's sister, Lindsey Marino, declined to give his position on the referendum, but said, “I just want to be informed in case I am asked questions by the public, and I want to make sure everyone is being honest and held accountable.”
Said Superintendent Rodney Thompson, “To my knowledge, Berkeley County School District has complied with all FOIA requests in regards to the school improvement referendum. We have spent numerous hours and resources responding to FOIA requests. ... I would not be surprised if we are accused of using our resources to oppose the school improvement referendum as well. I guess it comes down to what side of the fence you are on.”
John Reagle, an attorney for the district, said he is not prepared to comment on whether the district has misused its resources, but “the point I made in the FOIA response letter is that, just because there may be a large number of documents that are showing up, you can't infer from that anything about whether the district was trying to improperly influence the referendum.”
Whitley, the son of school district Associate Superintendent Karen Whitley, said he has proof of his claims in the form of a Sept. 20 email from district communications director Amy Kovach to 13 principals that she and a freelance videographer would visit 10 schools to make two videos, one for the Yes 4 Schools campaign and one for teacher recruitment. It also asks to have students say “Yes 4 Schools” on camera.
“This is a sample of what I believe is in her emails,” said Whitley. “It proves Mrs. Marino was exactly right about inappropriate use of district resources. This is conclusive proof.”
Kovach said coordinating video shoots is part of her job description, and, “If opposition to the campaign wants to make a video, I would offer the same courtesy and coordination of services, as long as they follow all the same rules of engagement.”
Kovach said the video referenced in her email is not the one on the Yes 4 Schools website, a claim supported by Laura Varn, spokeswoman for the volunteer-run Yes 4 Schools campaign. Varn said the video “ended up being not really what we wanted.”
Whitley said whether the video was used is irrelevant.
“The bigger issue is they said no district resources were used,” he said. “That email clearly shows their intent was to use district resources and children during the school day. It conclusively demonstrates a violation of ethics laws and school resources.”
The calendars of Thompson, Kovach and Assistant Superintendent Archie Franchini show weekly Yes 4 Schools conference calls, Whitley said.
Kovach said the “Yes 4 Schools” campaign invited her to listen in on a weekly conference call.
“At times, the campaign team asked for more information or clarification of data,” Kovach said.
“I did respond to requests, as it is my job to provide information to any citizen who requests it.”
Kovach also pointed out that the calls were often scheduled outside of her 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. office hours.
Whitley said the calendars, in which personal information is redacted, are incomplete because “they don't show the schedule as outlined in the video email, for example.”
He also said he has copies of other emails from Kovach that show she worked on the campaign during office hours.
“I don't want to show my complete hand, but I have proof that the email from (Kovach) is the tip of the iceberg.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.