A screenshot of the Feb. 28 Kent School Board meeting. COURTESY IMAGE, Kent School District

A screenshot of the Feb. 28 Kent School Board meeting. COURTESY IMAGE, Kent School District

Kent School Board bans fellow member from labor contract talks

Controversial 3-2 vote singles out Donald Cook because his wife teaches in the district

Despite unanimous opposition by 13 teachers and parents of students during public testimony, the Kent School Board voted 3-2 to ban fellow member Donald Cook from any labor contract meetings with the district’s 11 employee groups.

The board said at its controversial Feb. 27 meeting it singled out Cook because his wife teaches in the Kent School District. Cook has said numerous times he would recuse himself from any teacher contract talks or votes because of the potential conflict of interest.

Board President Meghin Margel and members Tim Clark and Awale Farah, however, decided that even Cook’s presence at meetings with other labor groups, such as office workers, bus drivers, maintenance workers and others, could indicate a bias because he might want more money for teachers over other employees.

“The resolution is making sure that the pot of money for negotiations with different labor unions, if one person has a particular personal interest that makes a difference in personal family finance with one union, it leaves less for the rest of the unions,” Margel said. “There’s one pot of money, if you could take out more from one then there’s less for the others.”

Margel, Clark and Farah voted for the resolution. Cook and fellow new board member Andy Song opposed it.

Margel told Cook he would still be able to vote on labor contracts, but not be part of the executive session discussions with union representatives and other board members. That’s why the board formed the Labor Policy Committee to include each board member except Cook.

“It does not end your ability to vote on agreements,” Margel said. “It doesn’t allow for discussion behind closed doors about how those negotiations happen.”

Cook argued he would have less information than other board members about the contract negotiations with employee groups because he would not be present at the meetings. Margel responded Cook would still get to vote on the final contract agreement and its details.

Cook later talked about why his recusal isn’t enough and questioned the need for a labor committee. He said he checked with legal advisors for the Washington School District Directors Association and they told him they had never seen a board form such a committee.

“This is hindering my ability to provide oversight of the district and the ability to do my job,” Cook said. “With all of the (school) districts in this state, it’s most likely they’ve had directors with a spouse in the district. …none came to this solution.”

Many speakers during public comment claimed the board and staff wrote the measure to silence Cook, who in his two months on the board after voters elected him in November 2023, hasn’t hesitated to question proposals and actions that come before the group.

Layla Jones, vice president of the Kent Education Association (KEA, the teachers union), told the board during the public comment period before the vote that its resolution is “disingenuous” for calling out Cook for “perceived and predetermined conflicts of interest.”

Jones said Cook has been transparent about his marriage to a Kent School District teacher and that he would recuse himself from any votes to avoid any conflicts of interest.

“I can accept he will not weigh in on anything with KEA, I cannot accept this board wanting to block him from making decisions on other KSD (Kent School District) labor groups,” Jones said. “This is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to silence, gaslight and suppress a pro labor board member elected by Kent voters. …it is harmful, undemocratic and union busting at its finest.”

Erika Bilyard, a parent of two students in the district, told the board it needs to “stop harassment and bullying” and rather work together “to right the Kent School District administrative ship that sinks lower.” She said the resolution is not the answer.

“We’re the voters telling you this is the wrong direction,” Bilyard said. “It’s a vote against the will of the very voters that elected you and further destroys the trust of the community and is going to impact the district in a terribly negative light.”

Song, the only other new board member, tried to get the board to consider tabling the vote in an effort to hear from the labor groups in executive sessions what they think about forming a labor committee of four board members.

That proposal failed 3-2, with Margel, Clark and Farah against it. Cook and Song were for it.

Margel then quickly moved for a vote on the resolution.

“We’ve had an hour and a half discussion,” she said. “We’ve heard from many people, we’ve seen emails, we are moving to a vote.”

As with previous controversial votes at other meetings, Margel, Clark and Farah approved the resolution while Cook and Song opposed it.

Right after the vote, many of those in the audience walked out and shouted comments at the board.

“Good luck passing a levy doing this,” one woman said.

The district has a Capital Projects and Technology Replacement Levy on the April 23 ballot. The Capital Projects and Technology Replacement Levy would provide a majority of funding over the next three years for health and safety, repairs and improvements and technology education.

Margel immediately called for another recess. She also called for recess shortly after public comments about the proposal ended and Cook had started to speak about the measure, including bringing up his attempt at the Feb. 14 meeting to allow discussion about what happened in executive session.

“I asked for the conversation to be brought into public, you told me no,” Cook said to Margel and the board.

Margel quickly banged her gavel and called for a five-minute recess. Margel spoke to Cook during the recess.

After the board returned, Margel said Cook could finish his response to a question posed by Song but she “can’t have him waving attorney-client privilege” of board executive sessions.

Earlier in the discussion, the board spent about two hours on the issue, Song asked if other options had been considered besides forming a labor committee.

Superintendent Israel Vela handled that question after Clark asked him to respond.

“You asked has the board and superintendent explored all the options available to them based on the agenda item here, I would say together with the board and superintendent that is how this item got to the agenda, so yes it showed up here and it has been vetted.”

“I don’t recall me being involved in any other discussions about other options,” Song replied. “What were some of those options?”

“It was in executive session, so we will not share,” Vela said.

Margel then chimed in.

“Subgroups are pretty standard within different elected groups,” she said. “I think about Congress and it has Ways and Means Committee and an Education Committee and many subgroups. Within this committee, we are making a subcommittee as allowed by law.”

The responses by Vela and Margel drew murmurs and comments from the audience.

“This is a meeting of the board in public, we need the public quiet,” Margel said.

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A screenshot of Kent School Board member Donald Cook at the Feb. 28 meeting when three other board members voted to ban him from all school district labor negotiations because his wife is a teacher in the district. COURTESY IMAGE, Kent School District

A screenshot of Kent School Board member Donald Cook at the Feb. 28 meeting when three other board members voted to ban him from all school district labor negotiations because his wife is a teacher in the district. COURTESY IMAGE, Kent School District

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