Ogden School District spokesman, principal fined due to wording in bond message

Tuesday , October 24, 2017 - 5:15 AM

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

Editor's note: This story has been changed to correctly reflect the grade of the offense for using the language in question in the school bond email. It has also been changed to correctly identify the Weber County Attorney's Office official who helped review the matter.

OGDEN — Two Ogden School District employees were fined by Weber County election officials because material distributed by them about a $106.5 million bond proposal crossed into advocacy, violating state law. 

“I don’t think they were malicious,” Ricky Hatch, the Weber County clerk/auditor, said Monday.

State law governs that public entities, like school districts, can’t advocate for or against ballot propositions. Materials or information distributed by a school needs to be fact-based, without taking a stance. But language in a letter emailed by Polk Elementary Principal Maridee Harrison to parents of kids at the school was more than just informational, Hatch said.

Complaints from foes of the bond prompted a review of the emailed message and Hatch determined Harrison and Jer Bates, the district spokesman, violated state statute, a civil offense.

RELATED: Complaints Ogden schools promoted bond initiative lead to review of materials

The $106.5 million bond question — the focus of increasing heat and criticism from some — is up for a vote this cycle and mail-in ballots, due Nov. 7, were sent to voters last week.

Bates, who suggested school officials across the district should send a copy of the letter in question to parents, received a $200 fine while Harrison, in emailing it out, got a $10 fine. Harrison, the only principal to send the email, “just did what she was told,” Hatch said, explaining her lower fine.

Bates paid both fines out of his own pocket, he said late Monday afternoon, “and we’re moving forward.” He harbors no ill will toward election officials, he said, and sympathized with “the difficult and unenviable position” they’re in in having to review election material.

Similarly, Hatch said school officials have been cooperative. 

“They’ve been good to work with. We’ve had an open discussion,” he said.

Dustin Chapman, a member of the opposition group, Ogden Education, brought the bond vote material to the attention of election officials. He said group members weren’t aiming to create financial problems for the school district — they just wanted to make sure school reps weren’t unfairly using school resources to advocate for the bond. 

RELATED: Polk Elementary community voices concerns with potential school rebuild

The bond money would be used to rebuild Polk, T.O. Smith and Horace Mann elementary schools and the Ben Lomond High School gym. Money would also be used to add collaborative classrooms to two junior high schools.

School officials and their backers say the funds are desperately needed to update the facilities. But the proposals to rebuild the three schools, particularly Polk, have drawn fire from some who say school officials haven’t fully fleshed out their plans and want more review.

‘BENEFIT ALL STUDENTS’

The school district letter that led to the fines warns that some information circulating about the bond issue may be incorrect. Instead it aimed to “provide some facts” about the proposal.

One sentence in particular stuck out to Hatch and Deputy Weber County Attorney Christopher Crockett, who also took part in the review. It states, in part, that the bond “would benefit all students and all schools in Ogden,” which the officials maintain moved beyond a factual claim.

The rest of the letter, which spells out how bond funds would be used and includes dates and times of informational open houses, didn’t spark any major concerns.

Chapman’s group also disagreed with other bond material put out by the school district — signage and videos — leading to a review by the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office. Per that review, state officials directed the school district to tweak the language on a banner outside Polk Elementary.

The first version read, “Polk Elementary will benefit from this bond.” The revised version said, “Polk Elementary will be rebuilt from this bond.”

That Polk “will benefit” is subjective, said Justin Lee, deputy director of elections in the lieutenant governor’s office. 

There are different statutes for use of email and signage by government officials in elections, hence the separate reviews by Hatch’s and Lee’s offices.

Misuse of emails in elections by government officials can result in fines, which led to the $210 in penalties levied against Bates and Harrison. No such requirement applies to those who put up signs that violate election law, and Lee said his office prefers to work cooperatively with offenders to resolve language issues before resorting to punitive measures.

The Ogden School District is hardly alone in getting overeager in its bond promotional materials. Lee said Canyons School District in Sandy and Granite School District in Salt Lake City also faced scrutiny from his office due to language promoting bond issues in the two districts.

“We get this always, like clockwork, for every election,” Lee said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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