Ohio teacher improperly used school documents to reach voters and possibly manipulate crucial board election

February 12, 2014

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Ben Velderman Ben Velderman

Ben was a communications specialist for EAG from 2010 until August 2014. He is a former member of the Michigan Education Association.
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SPRINGBORO, Ohio – Kelly Kohls knew the public school apologists in her community disliked the policies she and two other conservative school board members had adopted for the Springboro Community City School District.

privacy eraserBut she never imagined that one critic would violate student privacy laws in an effort to have the conservative majority ousted in last November’s school board election.

Last August, Springboro high school teacher Molly Wray used contact information improperly obtained from old parent permission slips to send a mass email to Springboro High School graduates, encouraging them to vote in the school board election, according to a district document obtained by EAGnews.

She also encouraged the graduates to access her Facebook page, where she posted endorsements for three candidates opposing the conservative candidates.

In the end the establishment candidates won all three races, putting the school administration/teachers union back in control of the district.

In the district document reviewed by EAGnews, Springboro Treasurer Terrah Floyd acknowledges that the student information Wray used to send her email was protected under Ohio state law and the federal government’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

In other words, Wray illegally copied email addresses from confidential district records.

Despite the improper use of protected information for personal and political reasons, the only disciplinary action Springboro school leaders apparently took against Wray was to place a “letter of understanding” in her personnel file that gently reminds the veteran educator to maintain a “professional” relationship with former students.

Kohls says the incident – and the district’s underwhelming response to it – reveals two important problems in public education.

The first is that despite state and federal privacy laws, students’ personal data can never be genuinely secure if school employees don’t understand or follow the laws. She believes if lawmakers aren’t serious about enforcing the privacy laws already on the books, new legislation to secure students’ Common Core-generated data are just symbolic, feel-good efforts that won’t have any practical effects.

Kohls’ other takeaway is that the laws aren’t evenly applied to those “inside” the K-12 system as those outside the system. If school employees are allowed to flout the privacy laws – something Kohls says happens “as a matter of routine” – it gives the Education Establishment an enormous political, get-out-the-vote advantage over ordinary citizens who have to follow the rules.

“There is nothing anybody is doing to apply the laws to school employees,” Kohls tells EAGnews.

Three hotly contested board races

Wray’s email to students last August mentioned three separate reasons for writing.

The first two involved school and alumni news. The third item – which accounted for 50 percent of the email – dealt with a district levy renewal vote and the hotly contested Nov. 5 school board races.

Springboro’s school board races were a big deal last fall, as members of the Education Establishment were eager to reclaim control of the district from the fiscal conservatives – Kohls, David Petroni and Jim Rigano – who had been in the majority since 2012. The three reform advocates and their “Children First” budgeting philosophy had rankled the local teachers union and establishment supporters.

In the end, three pro-Establishment candidates were elected last November, giving them a 3-2 board majority. But that wasn’t a sure thing when Wray sent her email on Aug. 26, as evidenced by its urgent tone.

“It is VERY important to vote on November 5th if you are still a Springboro resident,” Wray wrote, according to a copy of the email provided to EAGnews. “YOUR VOTE COUNTS and just may be the difference maker on November 5th.”

The veteran educator then provided graduates with step-by-step instructions for when, where and how they could register to vote in the election. She also encouraged readers to “share this with your Springboro contacts so that (they) see it, use it, and share it too! THANKS!!!”

While Wray stopped short of endorsing any candidates in the August email, she did encourage former students to look her up on Facebook, where she posted two items on the day before the election formally endorsing the three candidates who went on to win their races.

After the results were announced on election night, Wray posted a “thank you” to Springboro voters for electing the three candidates and passing the levy renewal.

No disciplinary action taken

Kohls, who served as the district’s school board president for two years, was not directly affected by the situation, since she did not seek re-election in November.

But she’s very concerned about the abuse of confidential school documents and the political manner in which they were used.

She became aware of Wray’s email several weeks before the election through two parents who inadvertently received the email and found the whole thing inappropriate and a breach of confidentiality.

Kohls pressed school administrators to investigate the matter and to take corrective action. But it remained unresolved when she left her post on the board.

Acting as a private citizen, Kohls followed up with the district last month through open records requests. During that process she discovered that administrators and the newly installed school board were not going to meaningfully discipline Wray for using parental permission slips in her possession – which are still school property – to compile a personal contact list of graduates.

Instead, the district leaders placed a “letter of understanding” in Wray’s personnel file late last month that very gently reminded the veteran educator that district employees are encouraged “to maintain professional relationships with prior students” and “to ensure that the individuals contacted have given permission for you to contact them.”

District officials apparently view the email as a harmless reminder containing a class reunion announcement and a nonpartisan reminder to vote in the November election. They obviously saw no harm or foul when she encouraged the potential voters to refer to her Facebook site for more details – or recommendations.

Superintendent Todd Petrey did not respond to EAGnews’ requests for an interview, but left a terse voice mail expressing displeasure with our inquiry.

Kohls is troubled by the district’s lax attitude toward protecting student information. She says that during her four years on the school board, she witnessed a number of occasions in which student information was mishandled. Even though most of the misuses were not likely done with bad intentions, they did reveal a disturbing lack of awareness of Ohio regarding federal FERPA laws that require privacy protections for student information.

Kohls reasons that if the privacy laws already on the books aren’t stopping sloppy record handling, then there are few assurances that school districts can be trusted to secure the reams of student-specific data that’s soon to be generated through Common Core-aligned tests and the increased use of personalized learning technology.

Kohls’ other concern hits closer to home. During her four years as an outspoken fiscal conservative on the Springboro school board, she often saw first-hand how school employees have a vested interest in electing board members who will cooperate with the Education Establishment agenda of higher spending, higher taxes and little accountability.

According to Kohls, if school employees can access voter contact information for electioneering purposes without facing any kind of serious consequences, it will likely happen again. That  gives the Establishment an unfair political advantage over Tea Party-esque activists, and it also opens the door to further problems, such as a rogue school employee giving (or selling) the contact information to political or special interest groups.

Kohls tells EAGnews she brought Wray’s alleged misdeeds to the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Professional Conduct, but was told state officials considered it a local matter and would not conduct an investigation.

In a recently published op-ed, Kohls concludes that either by accident or by being lax “on purpose,” the school district cannot truly protect students’ information.

“The simple actions of collecting students and parental data should be prohibited, because as I have witnessed, at least this public sector is unable to follow the laws now.”

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