CASTLE ROCK — An automated call that went out to parents in the Douglas County School District on Thursday not only evoked fear in many hearts, but also outrage after realizing the message sent via the emergency broadcast system was really a campaign message.
The message also borders on a violation of Colorado’s Campaign Finance Act, which says government entities cannot use taxpayer resources to campaign for one side of an issue or candidate.
The message starts out “Good evening Douglas County School District community, this is Board of Education President David Ray calling you with some important information.”
Parents said in today’s environment, they take getting “emergency” messages seriously.
“The things we’ve all become accustomed to hearing about in schools with threats, my first assumption was that something really bad had happened in our district, or a credible threat was received and they were closing down school on Friday,” said Laura Jensen, a parent in the district.
However, the message quickly let listeners know that Ray is enlisting the help of parents to pass a mill levy override and bond issue in the fall of 2018.
Next week “the proposals for how a bond and mill levy override would benefit our students will be discussed,” Ray said followed by the location and time of the meeting. “…On behalf of all our board of directors we believe it is simply time to invest in our kids and our community.”
Within the hour an email went out from Stacy Rader, DCSD Communications Officer, apologizing for the mistake.
“The message was sent via the wrong communications channel,” Rader’s email read in part. “It was sent via our emergency system instead of via the regular system. This was 100 (percent) human error on our part. The communications office takes full responsibility for this mistake —this was not done by our Board of Education. We understand that the emergency notification system is only for use in emergency situations and sincerely apologize for any concern we may have caused. We hope this doesn’t overshadow the important message from our Board President David Ray. We will follow up with an email version of the message.”
Rader told Colorado Politics early Friday that staff “had opted for using the emergency communication path for the message via the district’s two-tier mass-notification system because the non-emergency path often gets bogged down,” yet reiterated to Complete Colorado late Friday that the message was simply a mistake when sent via the wrong communications channel.
“The Communications Office takes full responsibility for this mistake, sent an apology email immediately following the phone call, and reiterates this was not done by our Board of Education,” Rader said.
Jensen said it didn’t matter; she was horrified when she realized what she was listening to.
“It is a misuse of district resources regardless of whether it goes out on the emergency communications channel versus the normal communications channel,” Jensen said. “School finance is a complicated subject, and for people unfamiliar with the nuances, the message last night was laced with a little bit of fear. It was incomplete information.”
It is not clear how much the board plans to ask voters for, but some estimates during the hotly contested November election which flipped the board majority’s philosophical beliefs from a conservative, fiscally tight, school choice mantra to a more liberal, teachers’ union-backed one, were upward of $500 million or more.
Jensen said she wasn’t sold the apology was legitimate.
“As a parent, I don’t share my personal contact information with the school district so that they can send me a campaign ad,” Jensen said.
Several school districts over the last few years have been dinged for using school resources to disseminate one-sided information concerning mill levy and bond issues. The Greeley Tribune exposed five northern Colorado districts in violation in 2016.
In that story, Tyler Silvy reported that “The Fair Campaign Practices Act authorizes a penalty anywhere between double and five times the amount of the violation. In one case, a judge concluded it was appropriate to impose a penalty of double the amount spent by the government entity, according to guidance prepared for Colorado governments by the Denver-based Sherman and Howard law firm.”
Rader said district officials don’t agree Douglas County is in violation because they haven’t actually voted to put anything on the ballot yet.
“Absent this referral, no violation of the FCPA exists,” Rader said. “The intent of the call was to give the community an opportunity to learn more about important DCSD funding matters and share their opinions at an upcoming district event.”
The technicality doesn’t make parents feel any better.
“I know they won’t let the opposition, which there certainly will be in conservative Douglas County, have access to the same resources to share their message,” Jensen said. “It was hard to take the district’s apology for the so-called mistake of using the emergency system when they doubled down with the political message in the apology and resent the campaign ad within that message so we can all listen to it again.”
The audio specifically presented a favorable opinion of the need for more money. There was no mention of the cons of an increase or an invite to opposing views, and Rader did not answer questions as to whether the school district would allow opponents the opportunity to use the same system to get their message out.
“We have already received a lot of feedback and hope that many community members will attend to express their views,” Rader said.
Supporters of the new board, who were vocally critical of similar mistakes under the old board, took to social media quickly trying to defuse the situation.
“Anybody worked up about this is somebody who has been waiting for a “gotcha” so they can pounce on the new board who they aren’t going to support no matter what,” one person wrote.
“What I’m really enjoying is all the people who don’t support the new board freaking out over what was nearly immediately apologized for as human error. I’ll take human error any day over actual bad news,” another said.
Jensen said the message Thursday wasn’t the right way to ask for more money.
“For a county whose schools look like they need money, in a year that’s it’s a really bad idea to put a tax increase on the ballot, when we are in a conservative county, in a gubernatorial midterm where we’re likely facing multiple tax increase questions state wide, they have to be flawless if they think they are going to have a chance here,” Jensen said. “This was not a good way to kick it off.”