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Possible ethics violation in text message from Coeur d'Alene principal

Possible ethics violation in text message from Coeur d'Alene principal

Branden Durst
April 15, 2023
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April 15, 2023

Following the failure of the Coeur d'Alene school levy election in March, a local school principal sent a text message to staff saying she knew exactly which employees, spouses, and adult children did not vote in the election and warned that they needed to vote in the upcoming May redo election. 

The text message from Dalton Elementary school principal Jody Hiltenbrand may violate Idaho law and the professional code of ethics for Idaho educators. The text message reads: 

Hi Staff. I apologize for the late text, but I just finished combing through public election data records from the March 14 election. I am DEEPLY disappointed to learn that among the Dalton staff, 7 of our staff members and 8 spouses/adult children did not vote in our neighboring Kootenai County school levy elections where they live. In our school district levy, 6 of our staff did not vote, and 17 spouses/adult children did not vote. None of these numbers include staff that live outside Kootenai County.

These numbers are not acceptable.

We MUST do better on May 16.

Voters in Kootenai County rejected the $25 million permanent school levy on March 14. The vote was 49% in favor and 51% against. School officials said the money would be used for operating costs not covered by state funds. Voters also rejected a five-year $25 million safety and operations levy, which would have been for maintenance and other facilities projects.

Whether schools need more funding isn’t the matter at hand here. The question is whether district employees, especially those in positions of authority related to the hiring and firing of staff, should be sending communications like these.

A cursory review of Idaho Code, Coeur d’Alene School District (CDASD) Board Policies, and Code of Ethics for Professional Educators says no.

Idaho Code 33-1208 outlines the process by which the Professional Standards Commission (PSC) can discipline certificated staff and the grounds for disciplinary action. This includes violating the PSC Code of Ethics.

The text message, sent to employees this past week, appears to violate three components of the Code of Ethics. These include Principle V(a) which prohibits the “misuse, or unauthorized use, of public or school-related funds or property.” The text message also appears to violate Principle X(b), which prohibits “Committing any act of harassment toward a colleague” and Principle X(d), which prohibits “Using institutional privileges for the promotion of political candidates or for political activities.”

Finally, CDASD Board Policies 5270 and 5290 also appear to have been violated by this text message. Board Policy 5270 refers back to the Code of Ethics and prohibits “Offensive or threatening statements or gestures toward district personnel, students, parents or visitors.” Certainly, an educator could easily feel threatened by their supervisor sending them a text message telling them that they know their family didn’t vote and stating emphatically, “These numbers are not acceptable.”

CDASD Board Policy 5290 states, “No person may attempt to coerce, command, or require a public employee to support or oppose any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue (emphasis added).” 

Public school employees and their families shouldn’t be monitored for how or whether they vote in any elections. Furthermore, a school principal threatening employees to participate in an election in order to shape the outcome of balloting in which the district has a stake in the outcome lends the appearance of impropriety, potentially creating distrust between the public and the school district.

School officials should take steps to assure the public that its supervisory employees don't have their finger on the scale, trying to tip the balance of an election in their favor by coercing school employees to participate through threats or intimidation. And public employees should be assured that their school supervisors aren't monitoring their voting habits or those of their family members. 

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