Campaign Ethics Get Attention in Iowa City School Board Race
By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In addition to educational philosophy and facilities plans, the act of campaigning has become an issue in the Iowa City school board election.
The matter has come up twice this week over campaigning on school property.
It’s the first time in recent memory campaign ethics have become part of an Iowa City school board election.
“We were taken off guard,” school district Superintendent Stephen Murley said Wednesday.
This is not unheard of in Iowa, however. Just this month, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board admonished or reprimanded 15 school employees for using their work email to promote school board candidates in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston in a 2011 election.
Murley said the district always warns its employees to keep campaigning out of the classroom and off their work email, but it hasn’t given school board candidates direction.
There are nine candidates seeking three seats in the Sept. 10 election.
Murley said any campaign miscues this year probably occurred innocently and electioneering is not a problem here. In fact, it’s not even clear if any laws were violated.
One of the complaints centers on school board candidate Brian Kirschling, of Iowa City, going to Hills Elementary Aug. 13 to meet with residents and to City High Aug. 16 to talk with teachers and staff before a staff meeting. He also brought doughnuts to City High.
It is illegal to use public resources, including school buildings, for political purposes in Iowa, but there are exceptions.
One of those is when communication does not expressly advocate for a candidate by asking for votes or money, said Megan Tooker, executive director and legal counsel for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board She could not say whether Kirschling’s visits were legal without having more information.
Kirschling said he answered questions and had handouts with his stance on issues but did not ask for votes or donations.
Tooker said school districts have the authority to restrict access to their buildings. The school district emailed candidates on Monday, after Kirschling’s events, saying Tooker’s office said it is not appropriate to campaign on district property unless all candidates are invited or if the candidate went through the formal process to rent a facility.
Monday night, members of Kirschling’s campaign put fliers on vehicles at several back-to-school events held at school buildings. That activity is allowed in a public parking lot, Tooker said.
But North Liberty parent Joe Strathman sent an email that night to school representatives, the Johnson County auditor and Tooker complaining about the fliers and Kirschling’s presence at City High.
“It is not acceptable to allow a political candidate, who could ultimately be on the school board that oversees teachers/administrators and bargains with the union that these teachers work for, to go on district property and hand out gifts, albeit small, to try and influence voters and potentially future employees,” he wrote.
Kirschling said he does not believe he violated any laws and noted other candidates have put fliers on vehicles this year and in past elections.
“As we get closer to Sept. 10, I imagine that things are going to get more intense,” he said. “I wish we’d spend more time talking about the issues.”
But a question of fairness has been raised by another candidate.
After hearing Kirschling had been in schools, Phil Hemingway tried to schedule campaign events in school buildings this week. But he was told that to qualify for the political rental rate, someone must already be elected. He would have had to pay $125 an hour for a classroom, versus $10 an hour at the political rate.
Hemingway, who is not accepting campaign donations, said he is not complaining about the rules, but he said they should be applied equally to all candidates. Kirschling did not pay for his use of Hills or City, but Murley said the principals did not know he was coming or they otherwise would not have allowed it.
Hemingway, of Iowa City, ran for school board two years ago and has been a frequent critic of school officials.
“It seems to me a double standard, and especially against a campaign that is self-funded and a campaign that has raised concerns against the administration,” he said.
Iowa City parent Chris Liebig said on his blog that the candidates should get free use of school buildings.
“It’s almost as if the district doesn’t want to make it easy for people to talk about school issues in settings where it can’t manage and control the discussion,” he wrote.
Most school board candidates hold their events at public libraries or recreation centers.
No complaint had been filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board as of Wednesday afternoon.
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