Send Salmon School District officials to detention for likely election law violations

Lindsay Atkinson Articles

The Salmon School District has likely violated Idaho election law by using taxpayer dollars to encourage voters to pass a $25.6 million bond, an Idaho Freedom Foundation investigation shows.

This potential violation is currently being investigated by a special attorney within the Jefferson County prosecutor’s office, due to letters sent to the Lemhi County Prosecuting Attorney by the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Salmon community members.

According to Idaho law, it is illegal for “public funds, resources or property to be used to advocate for or against a candidate or ballot measure.” This law was passed in 2018 to protect Idahoans from the undue influence of public entities over election results.

Even with this law in place, in July 2018, Salmon School District Superintendent Chris Born entered into a contract with Rich Bauscher of The Facility Planners for educational consultant services related to the district’s March 12, 2019 school bond measure. Bauscher is an associate professor at the University of Idaho and the former superintendent of the Middleton School District.

Review: Salmon School District documents, contracts, and emails 

As a part of his contract, Bauscher is obligated to “[a]ssist [the school district] in the organization of a pre-bond Ad Hoc Citizens Committee.” This is where the likely breach of law began.

Bauscher partnered with school district officials to create the 11-officer committee, known as the District 291 School Bond Committee. This committee is now actively advocating for a yes vote on the bond through phone calls to voters, face-to-face meetings, a media campaign, and more.

From a public records request obtained by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, it is obvious that this committee’s advocacy work is a joint coordination between the school district, the consultant, and the committee members—and thus a likely violation of electioneering law.

The District 291 School Bond Committee runs a website that advocates for a yes vote on the bond measure. The committee also tracks the names, addresses, and political affiliations of the more than 5,600 registered voters in district boundaries. The committee has divided voters based on the likelihood a person will vote yes, and has assigned a committee member to contact each of the likely yes voters.

The committee members, with Bauscher’s help, have also estimated the number of votes they need to pass the measure: 2,500. And the committee has written a “Script for Yes identification” for members to use when talking to potential voters.

Since the beginning of January, committee members have given Bauscher and Born regular updates about their advocacy activities and plans. In response, while under contract with the district, Bauscher has dispensed campaign advice to the committee.

In a Feb. 13 email, Liz Townley—one of the most active committee members and an employee of the United States Forest Service—wrote that she “got a message from Rich last night and he suggested we take down the countdown on votes in our website since it’s a public facing site because it is sharing the exact recipe that we are using.” Townley’s email referenced a countdown clock on the committee’s website, ticking down from their goal of 2,500 yes votes. Townley relays to other committee members that Bauscher told her to take the countdown off the site so that it is not obvious to the opposition that the committee is tracking how many residents have committed to yes votes, because “if the No’s see we are getting close that might push them to work harder.”

In a Jan. 4 email, Bauscher described to a committee member which documents he wanted the school district to distribute, and which he planned to have the committee send out, as school districts can only send factually neutral materials to voters. He stated, there would be a brochure that “is strictly Informational coming from the [school district]” and a postcard that “is promotional and only getting sent to the 2,800 YES people we identify. Comes from your committee.”

In a Jan. 11 email, Bauscher followed up on this task, stating: “The cards should be sent out to each of the 2,500 YES people that get identified on Thursday March 7th. We will need to collect funds for them to be printed and mailed out. With 2,500 names probably will only be 1,250 households to mail them to. Hope we hit our goal of 2,500!!!”

The 46 emails the Idaho Freedom Foundation has received between the committee and school officials detail enough electioneering that a book could be written on the topic. Below is a brief list of likely electioneering activity:

  • While under contract with the school district, Bauscher helped write the committee’s meeting agendas. In a Feb. 4 email, Bauscher sent two committee leaders a draft agenda for their Feb. 18 meeting, and stated: “Let me know of the changes you desire on the agenda.” In his various correspondence, Bauscher provided at least two meeting agendas to the committee.
  • The committee submitted meeting minutes after each of their meetings to Bauscher and Born, like a public entity would. However, simultaneously, committee members insisted that their meetings could be closed to the public. When some bond measure opponents planned to attend one of their meetings, committee member Cori Allen wrote in a Feb. 15 email to other committee members: “I’m for pulling a fast one and going to a different location.” A committee member wanted to abruptly change locations without notice so that the public could not be involved.
  • Committee members formed a private Facebook group, and they removed anyone who attempted to join who was not on their list of yes voters. In a February 13 email among committee members, Cori Allen shared that opponents of the bond measure were sharing with community members that the committee ran a private Facebook group. Allen shared that: “One thing we want to be very clear on, we do NOT have a facebook page like they do, we have a private fb event for yes voters that is not affiliated with our committee, we are encouraging yes voters to invite their yes voter friends and family, that’s the only way you can find it. Mallori and I are monitoring it and using it to keep the momentum going. I will remove any no voters that get invited, and they cannot be invited back again.” Though the Facebook page is supposedly not connected to the committee, it is committee members who monitor it and decide who can join.
  • The committee also ran a media campaign to get people to vote yes. A Feb. 23 email detailed that the campaign would include newspaper ads, radio spots, and targeted Facebook ads—and they even met to figure out how “to raise some money to start paying for this stuff.”

In a March 1 email from committee member Jenny Tracy to the rest of the committee, she shared that the members have “captured 1298 YES votes so far but our goal is 2500.” This 1,298 figure is the number of residents who have actively committed to one or more of the committee members that they will vote yes on the bond measure. The final vote tally will come on election day, Tuesday, March 12.

IFF wrote the prosecuting attorney for the current investigation of the Salmon School District regarding the potential violation of Idaho’s election laws. In its letter, IFF asserted that it is illegal for the Salmon School District to use public resources to directly or indirectly advocate for or against a bond measure. We assert that hiring a consultant who is contractually obligated to form and guide a committee, and who regularly provides materials and directions to its members, is a violation of Idaho law. The consultant position is a pipeline for advocacy: The school district hires a consultant, who organizes a committee, which advocates for a yes vote.

It is unfair, and likely illegal, for taxpayers to have their money used to push them to vote the way the school district wants. Salmon School District officials should be held accountable for their actions.