Donald Cook. COURTESY PHOTO, Kent School District

Donald Cook. COURTESY PHOTO, Kent School District

Kent School Board member Cook focus of proposed resolution | Update

Measure would form Labor Policy Committee that excludes Cook due to potential conflict

The Kent School Board will consider a resolution at its Wednesday, Feb. 28 meeting to form a Labor Policy Committee that excludes Donald Cook, one of its five members, because his wife teaches in the district.

Cook, in his first year on the board, accused three fellow members at the Feb. 14 board meeting of “doing the public’s work in private” during executive sessions, which are closed to the public. Cook tried to get the board to discuss a portion of the session, but was voted down 3-2.

One of Cook’s accusations included that Superintendent Israel Vela and three board directors tried to reach consensus on a resolution, prior to providing this information to the public as is required.

In a Feb. 23 email to the Kent Reporter on behalf of Board President Meghin Margel, Kent School District communications staff denied any improper actions during executive sessions.

“The Kent School District Board of Directors is committed to upholding the highest standards of integrity and accountability,” according to the email. “In response to concerns raised about its compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act (OMPA), the district’s general counsel, in coordination with external legal counsel, has confirmed that all executive sessions have been properly noticed and conducted in accordance with the OMPA.”

The district explained how it handles executive sessions.

“Like other public agencies, the Kent School District Board of Directors regularly holds executive sessions to discuss important matters in a closed setting,” according to the statement. “These sessions are held in compliance with the OMPA, which allows for privacy when discussing sensitive topics, in many cases to receive advice from attorneys which would not necessarily be appropriate in open session. The presence of the general counsel and external legal counsel ensures these meetings are conducted lawfully and transparently.”

At its first meeting since the Feb. 14 accusations by Cook, the board agenda includes a proposed resolution that targets Cook by excluding him from the Labor Policy Committee.

Cook has said he would recuse (remove) himself from teacher labor contracts to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest or any potential benefit to him or his wife.

The proposed resolution (1669) describes in detail its goals:

“A tension arises when a Board member has both a duty of loyalty to the member’s spouse, as well as to the District. While it may be said that a spousal duty is the “highest,” the duty of a public officer prevails. The breach of the duty to the District of non-disclosure or use of information for personal gain under RCW 42.23. 070(4) is a violation of law. And, such violation may serve as a basis for recall of an elected official. It is incumbent on the District to assure the public that its elected officials are acting within the law in serving

the public at large, and not individuals or special interests.

“Additionally, the Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act and the District’s contract with it Superintendent create additional responsibilities on the District and its Board.

“As a result, the District by this resolution creates a Labor Policy Committee of Directors without the involvement of a director or directors whose marriage or other relations may expose a director or the District to liability.”

The resolution then names Board directors Margel, Awale Farah, Tim Clark and Andy Song as members of the Labor Policy Committee, leaving off Cook. The superintendent also is on the committee.

State group stays neutral

According to Sean Duke, communications officer with the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA), which supports the work of board members across the state with research, policy and legal resources among its duties, the group does not comment on actions by local school boards.

Duke, in a Feb. 27 email to the Kent Reporter, commented about the proposed measure. He clarified that statement in a Feb. 28 email after the article posted Feb. 27 on the Kent Reporter website.

“First, I apologize if my previous email was ambiguous,” Duke said. “In hindsight, I should have clarified and underscored that:

“We have not read the resolution in question, nor do we intend to do so. This is because WSSDA does not validate or ‘vet’ actions taken by school boards.”

Duke said the association would not comment whether the resolution under consideration is necessary or advisable.

“That a board member would recuse themselves when there is a potential conflict of interest is standard practice,” Duke said. “Additionally, many boards adopt a practice of non-participation by that board member.”

Duke referenced Kent School District board policies about potential conflicts.

“Whenever a director, or his or her spouse or dependent is employed by the district, the director will refrain from participating in or attempting to influence any board action affecting the employment status of the director, spouse or dependent,” according to the policy. “Actions affecting employment status include, but are not limited to, hiring, establishing compensation and fringe benefits, setting working conditions, conducting performance evaluations, considering or imposing discipline and termination.”

The proposed resolution, however, doesn’t limit the Labor Policy Committee to contracts with teachers, but includes all labor contracts. The district has several labor partners, including principals, bus drivers, maintenance and custodial workers, food service staff, office workers, paraeducators and others.

Opposition to resolution

Supporters of Cook plan to attend the school board meeting, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28 at the district administrative offices, 12033 SE 256th St., to oppose the resolution, according to Facebook posts.

“Cook is being harassed and bullied by a majority of the board and the superintendent (who is the board’s one employee) and they are trying to control/silence him with this resolution,” posted Michele Bettinger, a former Kent School Board member. “Resolution 1669, if passed, would exclude Cook from participating in discussions or votes involving any union in the district.”

Bettinger said she experienced similar tactics from the superintendent and other board members before she resigned in 2022 after about three years on the board because she no longer felt professionally or personally safe asking questions, trying to get items on the agenda for discussion or while attending executive session.

”At the end of the day, the superintendent and the majority board members dislike Cook because he asks questions and won’t settle for the status quo, therefore they want to silence him,” Bettinger said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the position of the Washington State School Directors Association.

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