After multiple citizens and candidates expressed concern to members of the school board about the process to select the new school board Trustee, Rusty Coffelt, on January 19th, 2021, the WASB reviewed their actions and in the next two board meetings made public declarations of open meeting law violations and also disclosed financial conflicts of interests with vendors providing services to the board.
This is the second article in a two-part series about questions of fairness in the WASB’s trustee selection process, alleged retaliation against those who signed the recall petition, admitted open meeting violations, and an admission of a conflict of interest. The first article can be viewed here.
At the start of the January 26th, 2021, Board Meeting, Board Chair Amy Johnson read a letter to the public that she had prepared with her outside legal counsel to justify to the public why the board selected Trustee Coffelt, despite questions about whether the board had followed its own process that it had voted on unanimously and publicly communicated. In the letter Chairwoman Johnson discussed:
- The extension of the application deadline.
- Concerns about off-camera communication during the board ranking and before the board action.
- Concerns about the visual display of the final rankings not being shared for the public.
- Trustee eligibility, qualifications, roles, and responsibilities.
- The board process for written interview questions.
In Part One of our series, Idaho Dispatch discussed at length the Board’s actions, their stated reasonings for those actions, and whether those views were shared by the public and the other candidates for the Trustee seat.
After Trustee Johnson read her letter prepared with legal counsel, she then stated and made a motion as follows:
The board engaged in a series of emails in December and in January, which could be considered to be deliberative in nature where multiple trustees were the sending party or the recipient. To the extent that these emails constitute a violation of open meeting law, I hereby move that the board self declare an open meeting law violation.
The motion carried 4-0 with all Trustees affirming that they had violated open meeting laws by deliberating outside of the public view on decisions they are making as a board. The school board did not reveal the specific emails that Johnson was referring to in December and January.
The Idaho Dispatch has confirmed that the Ada County Prosecutor’s office has an active and open investigation into open meeting law violations by the West Ada School Board. According to Idaho Law, the fines for open meeting laws are paid by the violators and range from $250 – $2500 depending on the circumstances.
In the open meeting law guidelines, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden states:
Open and honest government is fundamental to a free society. The Idaho Legislature formalized our state’s commitment to open government by enacting the Idaho Open Meeting Law in 1974. The Open Meeting Law codifies a simple, but fundamental, Idaho value: The public’s business ought to be done in public.
The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office investigation is ongoing. The outcome of their investigation will be revealed in the coming weeks if the school board is in fact found guilty of violating the open meeting laws as they have publicly confessed.
Additionally, at the following board meeting on February 9, 2021, the WASB had an agenda item titled “Board Communication Strategies”.
Before they began deliberating on the topic, Trustee Ed Klopfenstein stated,
I want to let the board know that I have a conflict of interest with this item and to be obvious and transparent that I am not participating, I am going to exit the dais until after the discussion and I will be abstaining from the vote.
When questioned further about the conflict of interest, Trustee Klopfenstein stated that the conflict of interest was a contract and that he had a fiduciary interest in the company.
The company that was being discussed by the board is Red Sky Communications, a public relations agency that according to its website is dedicated to “Helping you position, promote and protect your brand.”
Idaho Dispatch obtained a copy of the contract between Red Sky Communications and the West Ada School District. The contract was entered into on November 10, 2020 and runs through May 31, 2021. In the contract, it states clearly that Red Sky “will provide communication counsel and services to the West Ada School District, its Board of Trustees and its Chief Communications Officer Char Jackson.”
The contract also clearly outlines a specific body of work that Red Sky will conduct for the Board itself, independent of the District Administration:
Red Sky will review emails sent to board members, familiarize itself with a to-be-completed district wide plan to mitigate issues related to COVID-19 and access board members and district leadership insights to determine a set of messages suitable for all stakeholders within West Ada School District’s board and district staff. The messages will provide a consistent, accurate representation of the decision-making process and the values behind it. These messages will form the foundation for assisting board members with email responses and aligning district staff to eliminate inaccurate information. Deliverables will consist of a master messaging document and applied messaging for email responses, talking points and a FAQ.
The Idaho Dispatch also obtained the first invoice of services provided by Red Sky to this district. The invoice for $4,623.75 was issued on December 31, 2020 for message development, asset development, and project management.
The Idaho Dispatch is seeking to understand why Trustee Klopfenstein is admitting a financial conflict of interest after the contract has been signed, services have been rendered and invoices issued. The Idaho Dispatch has been unable to find any prior board motions or approvals for these services in any West Ada School Board meeting prior to February 9, 2021.
The Idaho Dispatch also is seeking to understand specifically what “fiduciary interest” Trustee Klopfenstein has in Red Sky. Based on public records request and review of emails between board members and Red Sky dated on December 2, 2021, and December 18, 2021, it is clear that if Trustee Klopfenstein received the emails and read them that he had direct knowledge of Red Sky’s partnership with the board and district prior to his public disclosure of the conflict of interest at the February 9, 2021 Board Meeting. The Board even issued a press release in partnership with Red Sky on December 19, 2021. The press release was a declaration of unity between the Trustees and District Administration on the Covid-19 Operating Plan.
Idaho Dispatch does not have any evidence at this time that Klopfenstein disclosed a conflict of interest prior to February 9th, 2021.
When Trustee Klopfenstein was asked via email about his financial conflict of interest, he did not respond to our request for comment. Idaho Dispatch also sought comment from Red Sky about Klopfenstein’s disclosure of a “fiduciary interest” and asked if they would be able to clarify what that interest was. Red Sky did not respond to our request for comment either.
The Idaho Dispatch will continue to investigate the origins of Trustee Klopfenstein’s financial relationship with Red Sky and also whether the engagement of Red Sky without a board motion in November is another violation of open meeting laws.
Do you believe that the West Ada School board have Red Sky read all of the emails it receives from patrons?
What do you think of Klofhenstein’s disclosure of a conflict of interest with Red Sky and should the contract with them end now that the disclosure has been made?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Tags: Ed Klophenstein, Red Sky, Rusty Coffelt, West Ada School Board