Monday, November 23, 2009

PTO emails used to influence legislation charter commission process

Members of the Kimball Walker PTO and supporters of the elementary school consolidation plan used PTO email contacts just before the final meeting of the Legislative committee studying the school board charter in an attempt to influence the outcome of the vote.
On the morning of Nov. 18, about 36 hours before the final meeting, Chuck Willing, a Democratic activist and lawyer with the firm Rath Young Pignatelli, sent out a desperate email to Susan Noyes, the principal of Kimball Elementary, Chris Demers, the assistant principal of Walker Elementary, at least one teacher, and a number of PTO officers and activists. In the email, Willing accused volunteers of the committee of trying to hijack the elementary school consolidation process.
“Many of the members of the committee are people who want to stop the school consolidation project at all costs,” he wrote, denigrating committee members and not providing any proof or evidence of such accusations.
Willing explained what was going on in the committee process and the two options which could be recommended to the Legislature. He wrote that the establishment of a 49B process in the school charter “is something like the California ballot initiative process, and that has not turned out well for governance in California.” Then, he attempted to rally the troops.
“I think the elected commission route is the way to go,” he wrote. “I urge you to write an e-mail by Thursday afternoon … Please forward to anyone else who might be interested.”
Leah Brochu, the president of the PTO, later emailed volunteer coordinators Deidre Smith and Kristina Levine, stating, “I've been asked to forward this to our PTO volunteer list. Can either one of you take care of this?”
A couple of hours later, Smith obliged.

How influential were the emails?
It’s hard to tell how influential the emails were because most observers believe the process was rigged from the start, due to the overwhelming amount of people connected to the school system who were allowed to be named to the commission in the first place.
But some members have confirmed that a flurry of emails were forwarded to commission members at the last minute, advocating the creation of elected charter commission. Before that, according to sources, the emails and phone calls received by members advocating an initiative petition process far outnumbered the elected charter commission proposal. A quick scan of the emails sent to the commission shows that some were Kimball Walker PTO members.
In the end, the commission decided to recommend an elected charter commission to study the matter, meaning that changes, if any, won’t come to the school board charter until 2013.
While no one seems to want to comment on what Willing did, the email has sparked anger and frustration with some people who have been watching the process. Some have called it completely inappropriate while others called it “dirty pool. Some are also wondering about the legality of the use of PTO emails to influence a political process, questioning whether all the public school PTOs emails were used to steal civil and political rights from parents and taxpayers. How often have PTO emails been used to in similar ways to influence political processes in Concord?, another asked.
It’s hard to know or tell.

Is this legal?
While no one knows whether or not the use of PTO emails was legal, it certainly was inappropriate.
The Mission Statement of the Kimball Walker PTO states that it exists “to support the education of all Kimball Walker School students by fostering discussion, cooperation and aid among parents, teachers, students, administrators and community members.” Clearly, urging parents involved in the PTO to take a political position should not have been allowed.
The PTO’s bylaws are not posted online but a copy has been requested to see if there are rules limiting the use of volunteer and parent emails.
The Kimball Walker PTO is also a non-profit and it is against the law for non-profits to be involved in political campaigns or advocacy. Since Willing is a lawyer, he should know this … or at least know better.

Politicizing our schools
The hilarious and sad part of this is the issue is the clear hypocrisy of some of the commission members and elementary school consolidation supporters like Skip Tenczar.
In the final meeting of the commission, according to the minutes, Tenczar specifically worried that a 49B process put into the school board charter would put the education process in more danger of disruption, politicizing the process. He essentially accused proponents of direct democracy of politicizing the education of our children. Of course, this is spouting off complete ignorance of what is going on in the real world. The education of our children is a political issue, on the federal, state, and local level. It always has been and always will be.
And yet, it was advocates for the consolidation plan and those who opposed empowering parents and taxpayers who actually politicized the process. It was these advocates who used school PTO emails, parents, and volunteers to politicize the schools. This is the height of hypocrisy and crassness. And yet, it is alive and well in our city, by some of its most connected and influential political players.
What is also surprising about the comments from Tenczar and Willing is that no one but those connected to the school system even talked about the elementary school consolidation plans during the commission hearings (at least none that I heard). In fact, it was only school board member Kass Ardinger who, during a tense back and forth with another commission member, blurted out something like, We are only here because you’re fighting the elementary school consolidation plan, neglecting to mention that it was her and others who stopped the effort to put questions on the ballot to go before the voters. She, state Sen. Sylvia Larsen, and others, were the ones who forced the creation of the commission, not parents or taxpayers who were trying to empower themselves to get better control of their children's education, not unlike virtually every parent in the state of New Hampshire. It's funny how these folks manage to twist the truth around, isn’t it?

The incestuousness of Concord
Probably the most egregious point of all of these issues is the incestuousness of all of this, which has been a problem in Concord politics, in general, for many, many years.
Willing is a lawyer and shareholder with Rath Young Pignatelli, the law firm founded by Republican activist and powerbroker Tom Rath, the husband of the Concord School District Superintendent Dr. Chris Rath.
It is unknown whether Dr. Rath requested Willing to send the email out to parent volunteers, in an attempt to protect her fiefdom from tweaking, regulation, or revocation. But one could easily surmise such an action. Or, maybe, after receiving an onslaught of emails from people in the community requesting empowerment, one of the school board members reached out to Willing in an effort to influence the process. No one knows and we probably never will either.
But the larger point is this: The people involved in setting up this commission and picking its members could have put a telephone book on the table and blindly picked potential members at random and it would have been a much fairer process. Instead, the outcome of the commission was rigged from the start.
A Google search of some of the people involved in the process revealed connections to St. Paul’s School, various law firms, charities, businesses, and non-profits in the community. An interconnectivity of lives that don’t dare tread on each other – and don’t dare allow anyone else to be involved either.
Moving forward, it would seem smart to allow some new folks to be involved, with a more careful vetting process … or be doomed to the same rigged outcomes that steal democracy from the people of our community.


Anonymous said...

Atty. Willing...Tom Rath...Chris Rath. There's not that many dots to connect! Nice how the aristocracy look out for their own.

Anonymous said...

what about kass ardinger...atty.bill ardinger...tom rath...chris rath connection.