RICHLAND — A Richland School Board member facing a recall says she will seek to fire any district employees seen on school property with petitions or wearing buttons in support of the recall.
“Since there is apparently a misunderstanding, let me make it very clear that if I hear of a single staff member passing around a political petition on school grounds or wearing a political button on school grounds, I will file a formal complaint and ask for that staff member to be immediately fired for violating district policy,” board Vice Chair Audra Byrd wrote in a Feb. 16 email to a fellow board member, as well as the superintendent and head of human resources.
The emails obtained by the Tri-City Herald and the discussions at Tuesday night’s board meeting paint a picture of a board at odds over the guidance for employees and students about what’s allowed and what’s not when it comes to their free speech rights and the ongoing recall campaign.
Signatures are currently being gathered by a recall group to oust Byrd and two other board members, Semi Bird and Kari Williams, from office.
The recall charges stem from a vote the school board took a year ago during the COVID pandemic to go “mask optional” in Richland schools.
Charges accuse the trio of violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, laws surrounding Washington’s indoor face mask mandate and district policies, and exceeding their school board powers.
On Feb. 9, the Washington Supreme Court allowed the recall process to move on to the signature gathering stage.
If enough signatures are collected, voters could vote in August whether or not to remove the three from office.
WA campaign laws
Many in support of the recall worry the board’s actions have created a culture of fear in Richland schools, while those against the recall say any support shown on school grounds would be a clear violation of state campaign laws.
In an email to the Herald on Wednesday, Byrd declined to elaborate on her board meeting comments about firing school staff.
However, she shared screenshots of Washington laws prohibiting use of public offices for campaigns, as well as a portion of the teachers union contract that requires postings on union bulletins to be “of non-partisan nature.”
School district employees and teacher’s union, the Richland Education Association (REA), have sought further clarification on whether wearing buttons and quietly distributing petitions between staff members violates any state laws or district policies.
“Whether our members support or oppose the recall, I believe it is important that they clearly understand what they can and cannot do,” REA President Krista Calvin wrote in an email to the Herald, noting that the union has not taken a political stance on the recall issue.
“I do not believe that the (Public Disclosure Commission) guidelines alone are enough to help school employees know what is and is not allowed at school and would support efforts by the District to clarify those guidelines,” she wrote.
Two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, Richland School Superintendent Shelley Redinger sent out a district-wide email to all staff that linked to the state Public Disclosure Commission’s guidelines for school districts on election campaigns.
“We ask that all employees be sure that their exercise of the First Amendment rights do not cause a disruption to the education of our students,” she wrote on Feb. 23. “This is a sensitive issue in our community, our core job is to educate students in a safe learning environment.”
“That being said, as your superintendent, I recommend staff not wear recall-related buttons. I feel that such buttons could lead to workplace disruption and hamper our ability to provide students an education in a safe and effective environment,” she continued.
But at Tuesday night’s meeting, board member Rick Jansons said Redinger’s email didn’t go far enough in explaining certain circumstances.
He believes the state’s policy is too vague and his understanding is that teachers can wear buttons, and that students and citizens can collect signatures on school grounds.
“I have looked at the laws and read the PDC, and I have a different version,” Jansons said. “What Shelley sent out was good — she made a recommendation. I also don’t want schools disrupted, but teachers also have rights and I want them to know where they would cross the line and where not, so that they aren’t threatened.”
Jansons tried to pass a motion to ask for a legal review on what specific rights students, staff and the public have when it comes to those two activities.
But board member Semi Bird ultimately amended Jansons’ motion to make it moot and establish Redinger’s recommendation as the preferred interpretation for staff.
Bird’s amendment and the amended motion ultimately passed 3-2, with the three board members facing a recall voting in support of it.
‘Awkward and unprecedented’
Byrd’s comments on firing staff came after district administrators reportedly met with principals and union representatives who had questions about what recall-related activities staff could and could not do in the workplace.
Records show Redinger sent an email to the five school board members on Feb. 16 saying she and Tim Praino, the school district’s executive director of human resources, had been getting questions on the issue.
“Therefore, we decided to address it with the principals and building reps., in hopes that no one will do something to get into trouble by violating rules/laws,” Redinger wrote.
“Krista outlined what you can and can’t do with petitions and I talked about buttons as I have received many questions as apparently buttons are being made and distributed. Tim addressed being sensitive to students and not causing any learning disruptions,” said the email.
Four hours later, Audra Byrd responded to Redinger’s email with her warning that she would seek dismissal of any button-wearing staffers. She also said the discussion of the recall went against the district’s recently passed policy on “controversial issues.” However, that policy mostly deals with controversial curriculum.
“Apparently, these teachers also felt that you as the superintendent were not just allowing this behavior, but giving permission,” Byrd wrote.
Redinger responded the next morning on Feb. 17 in an email to Byrd and other school board members and district administrators:
“As you know, as superintendent, I am not in a position to officially support or oppose political issues such as levies, bonds, board elections, etc. However, my role, and that of my staff, does involve addressing such issues so that all RSD employees are aware of what they can and cannot do when functioning as employees of the district.”
Redinger added that they had solicited external legal counsel on the matter and added that the current situation was “awkward and unprecedented.”
“We will look at issuing a memo, vetted by legal, to all staff that covers what we know relative to the recall activities in the RSD work environment. Hopefully, that will get us all on the same page,” she continued.
A week later, Redinger sent a link to all employees with the PDC guidelines.
Washington state law says elected officials and employees are barred from using their office or public facilities to assist an election proposition or candidate for public office.
The PDC advises that administrators, principals, teachers and other staff members may wear campaign buttons or similar items on the job if the district’s policy permits employees to wear political buttons.
Richland School District doesn’t appear to have any board policies on buttons.
Outside of school hours, and without school resources, teachers and staff members are allowed to engage in whatever campaign activities they’re interested in. They’re also allowed to place window signs and bumper stickers on their own privately owned vehicles.
When it comes to First Amendment rights, teachers and students don’t fully shed those when they walk into the classroom. But restrictions and legal rulings have chipped away at what teachers and staff members are allowed to say, says the Washington ACLU.
The landmark 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines ruled that teacher and students protesting the Vietnam War with black arm bands were OK as long as their speech didn’t disrupt the learning environment.
“The trend seems to be that, if the items are not disruptive, they are protected as free speech,” Washington ACLU says. “For example, you can probably wear a necklace with a religious symbol on it. However, a court has ruled that a school may ban teachers from wearing buttons supporting a current political candidate as this could be considered ‘disruptive.’”
In 2008, a federal judge in New York City upheld a policy that banned teachers from wearing buttons, but said distributing campaign materials into colleagues’ mailboxes and hanging posters on bulletin boards maintained by their union were OK.
The decision as to whether or not teachers wearing buttons interferes with learning should be left up to the school district, Judge Lewis Kaplan argued in the Federal District Court in Manhattan.