Under investigation: Election complaint filed over school correspondence

May 2015 Posted in News
By Kristine Thomas

After receiving a complaint from Silver Falls District patron Fred Vandecoevering on April 9, the Secretary of State is looking into possible election law violation by Eugene Field Elementary School Principal Jennifer Hannan, Eugene Field special needs assistant and write-in school board candidate DaNette Wernette and Silver Falls Education Association President and teacher Marie Traeger.

In an email, Vandecoevering told Secretary of State Investigations and Legal Specialist Alana Cox that Hannan sent an email to her staff about a staff meeting.

“The email exposes a meeting that happened during work hours to allow DaNette Wernette, a district employee, to speak at a staff meeting,” Vandecoevering wrote, adding that Silver Falls Superintendent Andy Bellando should be investigated if applicable.

Vandecoevering would not disclose who gave him the April 2 email written by Hannan. He said he wants the matter to be looked into to determine if the employees were discussing the upcoming school board election during work hours.

The email from Hannan reads, “Please forward this to yourself on your personal email and save. I believe Marie Traeger will be asking you to use it. We have a situation that has called for somewhat extreme measures and DaNette has taken those measures. We will discuss at Staff Meeting Tuesday. Marie Traeger will be discussing at forum and SFEA will be hosting a candidates forum in April, which unfortunately DaNette cannot participate in as a write-in. In short, there are 5 board seats open due to board members moving – they need 4 to reverse the progress we have made toward relocating in last 2 years and we believe that is their intent.”

Hannan forwarded her staff an email from Wernette announcing her write-in candidacy for Zone 6 in the May 19 Silver Falls School District board election.

What is in question is whether the three employees violated election laws by discussing the upcoming school board election during work hours. All three women have stated to Cox that they did not.

School board member David Beeson also sent a letter to Cox, expressing his concerns.

“I want to share with you that, based on my experience of the past three-four years, the problem of the district administrators participating in, and encouraging, inappropriate political activity with respect to district elections, appears a much larger problem than what is addressed in Mr. Vandecoevering’s complaint,” Beeson wrote.

Oregon Secretary of State Communications Director Tony Green confirmed April 22 that a complaint was filed against Wernette, Traeger and Hannan, who were all given an April 24 deadline to respond to questions from Cox. They all met the deadline.

Green said on April 23 once the Secretary of State’s offices receives all the responses, “we will determine if additional inquiries are needed, or if we have enough information to close the case or issue penalties. With so many variables, I can’t estimate at this time how long it will take to resolve the case.”

Both Hannan and Bellando said all district staff members are reminded before each election what they can and cannot do to show support for a candidate or an issue. Both Hannan and Bellando also stated they take great care to follow election laws.

In their individual responses, Traeger, Hannan and Wernette all wrote they have not been involved in any inappropriate campaigning and have followed both the district’s and state’s guidelines for what a district employee can and cannot do during work hours. Hannan also wrote to Cox that there was no meeting to “discuss the candidacy of DaNette Wernette.”

“The meeting referred in my email was a regularly scheduled staff meeting for which I have attached the meeting notes,” Hannan wrote to Cox. “It was during the work day as all staff meetings are. There was no discussion of any candidates. There was a reminder about what kind of discussions are and are not appropriate to have during the school day and what kinds of things I can and cannot answer for them.”

Wernette also wrote to Cox that “there was not any meeting at Eugene Field School relating to my candidacy.  The meeting indicated was simply a regularly scheduled classified (support staff) meeting, and no mention of my candidacy was made at that meeting, or at any time during work hours.”

One of the questions Cox asked Wernette was, “Have you solicited other public employees to support your candidacy through their public email addresses?”

“I have not done so,” Wernette responded. “At a time when I was not on the clock, I sent Ms. Hannan my notice of intention to run out of respect for her as my employer, so that she would be aware of my intentions.  I did not ask her to support me, nor did I request that she share my letter with anyone.  No other public employees were included in my email to her.”

As the president of the SFEA, Traeger is allotted time during the day to work on employee union matters.  In her response to Cox, Traeger states the guidelines agreed upon by the district and the union to use inter district mail.

Hannan said in an email to Our Town that “we see the use or discontinued use of the Eugene Field site as a facility issue, not a political issue.”

“To expect me and my staff to be excluded from a conversation that impacts all of our students and our ability to do our jobs because some have chosen to make this a political issue is, in my opinion, unreasonable,” she wrote. “It is my responsibility as a principal to advocate for the safety and the educational needs of my students and staff.”

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