Courtesy Photo, Kent School District

Did Kent School District misuse public resources to support levies?

District denies violations alleged in complaints to state Public Disclosure Commission

The Kent School District is under a state investigation for alleged misuse of public resources or facilities for the purpose of supporting or opposing a ballot measure.

Three Kent residents filed complaints in September with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) that the district committed violations in support of its two levies on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

Proposition No. 1, the Replacement of Expiring Educational Programs and Operations Levy, if passed, would bring in $79.3 million in 2025, $82.5 million in 2026 and $85.8 million in 2027, according to the ballot measure.

Proposition No. 2, the Capital Projects and Technology Levy, if passed, would bring in $29.2 million in 2024, $60.9 million in 2025, $63.4 million in 2026 and $65.9 million in 2027, according to the ballot measure.

“The complaints contend that the district violated (RCW 42.17A.555) by deliberately advocating for support for the levies or misleading the public in internal email communications, stadium announcements, outdoor reader board displays, a social media post and an informational video,” said Zachary Pekelis, an attorney with Seattle-based Pacifica Law Group representing and hired by the district, in a 14-page response letter Oct. 9 to the PDC.

Pekelis said the district denies the communications violate the law, but officials have made changes since the complaints were filed.

“Although the district continues to believe that the complaints’ allegations lack merit, it seeks to give the widest possible berth to the applicable regulatory limitations and ensure that no reasonable member of the public would perceive anything untoward in the district’s levy-related informational materials,” Pekelis wrote. “Thus, since receiving the complaints, the district has elected to modify some of the communications at issue and adopted even more rigorous internal review processes and standards with respect to levy-related communications going forward.”

Joe Riley, who filed two complaints with the PDC, posted an initial reaction Oct. 10 to the letter on the KSD Discussion Group Facebook page.

“On a quick read, it appears the district has proactively made some changes based on the complaints, though they claim they are doing it out of an abundance of caution rather than because of any real violation,” Riley said.

Riley filed a complaint that dealt with numerous announcements (at least six) made during a Kentwood High School football game at French Field that he said seemed to be more than just an informational campaign. He claimed the announcements were opinion rather than fact.

“We believe every child, regardless of background, deserves an opportunity to achieve their potential by receiving an excellent education in a technology-rich and well-maintained school,” was one of the announcements about the levies.

Riley said that implies that not funding these levies will lead to students not achieving potential or receiving excellent education.

Pekelis, the attorney hired by the district, said the announcements accurately reflect the district’s values and

principles and are generally consistent with the letter and spirit of the law and PDC regulations and guidance.

“At the same time, the district also recognizes that some of the announcements contain language that could be construed by some observers as advocacy in favor of the levies,” he wrote. “For that reason, and to avoid even arguable deviations from the PDC’s guidance and best practices, the district has modified its announcements document. The district has also instructed French Field personnel to limit such announcements to no more than twice per game.”

Riley also filed a complaint about a district video posted that he claimed has misleading information about tax rates dropping if the levies pass.

“It misleads the public to think that taxes are going down, when in reality taxes are increasing and the rate is

lowering due to factors like rising home prices,” Riley said.

Pekelis said the district disagrees with Riley.

“The tax information presented by the district is accurate and not the least bit misleading,” he wrote.

Allison Riley filed a complaint that a district Instagram post implies elementary art programs and drama programs, specifically Cedar Valley Elementary School’s production of “The Wizard Of Oz,” are funded by the Kent School District. She said that is not the case. PTAs, PTOs, fundraising, grants, ASB funds, donations, and/or volunteer time are all used to put on elementary drama productions.

“Insinuating these programs will be supported by voting for this levy is deceptive and misleading to voters,” Allison Riley said.

Pekelis, in his letter to the PDC, said the Educational Programs and Operations levy would indeed fund district music and arts programs.

“While the Cedar Valley production specifically may not have relied upon district funds for sets and costumes, it is emblematic of student arts performances generally that do rely on levy dollars,” Pekelis said.

Justus Phelps filed a complaint about emails sent by school principals to families to remind them about the levies on the ballot.

“These communications written by the communications department and approved by the superintendent’s office have language in it that would lead parents and voters to believe that if these levies are not approved, their children will not be safe, will not receive a good education and would not be working in well‐maintained buildings,” Phelps said. “These scare tactics are not providing the factual information that parents should expect.

“This also violates PDC Interpretation No. 01‐03 in regards to using their Kent School District email to provide such information to parents. While emails are used to send newsletters home to parents, this goes beyond that scope and is using state resources for campaign purposes.”

Pekelis responded in his letter that “none of the suggested language reflects the ‘scare tactics’ Mr. Phelps imagines. They are instead replete with objective, factual information.”

What happens next

“This complaint is still in initial review, meaning PDC staff are working to assess the facts and determine if it needs to go to a full investigation, or can be resolved as a minor violation, with a statement of understanding, or dismissed as unfounded, or another resolution,” said a PDC spokesperson in an Oct. 10 email in response to questions from the Kent Reporter. “That process can take up to 90 days.”

The spokesperson further explained:

“If the PDC initiates a full investigation, a case status review, or initial hearing, must be held within 90 days of the complaint being filed. We prioritize work on cases for current elections, but I’m sorry, I can’t give you much better of an idea on the timeline.”

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