Lake Central School Corp.'s actions during referendum questioned

2012-03-31T22:00:00Z 2012-06-05T12:13:54Z Lake Central School Corp.'s actions during referendum questionedBy Marisa Kwiatkowski marisa.kwiatkowski@nwi.com, (219) 662-5333 nwitimes.com

An email from Lake Central School Corp.'s top official indicates district resources were used to push its voter referendum. But in a subsequent letter, the district denied an anti-referendum group access to the same resources.

Indiana law requires school corporations to provide equal access to facilities or equipment when promoting a position on a local referendum.

In a Sept. 8 email obtained by The Times, Lake Central Superintendent Larry Veracco told a parent he provided parents' email addresses to the political action committee supporting the referendum. District officials later denied a request for the same records by a group opposing the referendum, which sought voters' approval to rebuild Lake Central High School and construct a new Protsman Elementary School.

The pro-referendum committee, Friends of Lake Central Schools, sent parents multiple emails in the months before the election.

Ultimately, voters approved the $160 million referendum in November, but not all parents were happy about receiving those messages.

"I do not know if it was an overt handover of my email address or if it was done by someone in the school system who was sympathetic to the cause, but I have a unique email address that I use for the RDS Parent Network and as the contact email on file with the school system," one parent wrote Veracco on Sept. 8. "That email has never been used anywhere else. ... I'm writing, as a supporter of the goals you have, to suggest that you risk undermining those goals by using (school) funds, facilities or information in support of that goal."

That parent asked to not be named because his child still attends Lake Central schools.

In response to that parent's email, Veracco wrote:

"We did provide parent email addresses for this initial PAC mailing so all parents (dozens of requests) know where to go for information. I realize that some of our parents may prefer that we spread the word in a manner other than email, but we made a decision to do so since we believe the greater majority will benefit."

The Times obtained copies of emails to and from Veracco through a public records request to the school district.

Residents opposed to the referendum argue Lake Central school officials gave the district and its supporters an unfair advantage in swaying public opinion.

'I was mistaken'

Veracco told The Times during a recent interview that he isn't sure why he sent that email. He said he later checked with the assistant superintendent and employees in the technology department, and they told him the district did not provide the parents' email list to the pro-referendum group.

"I believe, in hindsight, I was mistaken," Veracco said.

His denial comes despite his Sept. 8 email, which references specific actions taken by a Web consultant to disseminate the email addresses.

Veracco said the political action committee may have received parents' email addresses from some of Lake Central's Parent Teacher organizations, but representatives of four PTOs reached by The Times said they did not do so.

Chuck Pollen, chairman of the pro-referendum Friends of Lake Central Schools, said he does not know how the political action committee gathered parents' email addresses. He referred questions to pro-referendum volunteer coordinator Gina Marten. Marten declined comment, referring all questions to Lake Central School Corp.

Veracco said he rejected requests to use the school corporation's website or phone alert system to promote the referendum.

"We tried to follow the law the best we could," he said.

But this isn't the first time the district's adherence to election law has been questioned.

Other complaints

St. John resident Joe Hero and St. John Township resident Richard Hucker filed complaints in November and February with the Lake County elections board, claiming Lake Central School Corp. used school property and equipment to promote its referendum.

Hero and Hucker argue Friends of Lake Central Schools failed to report those items as in-kind contributions on its campaign finance reports.

Hero and Hucker, who opposed the referendum, also claim Lake Central School Corp. suppressed voters by directing volunteers to remove "vote no" signs, according to their complaint.

The Lake County elections board decided Tuesday to schedule a separate hearing to review the two men's allegations and any documentation. That hearing had not been scheduled as of Friday.

Veracco declined to comment on Hero and Hucker's allegations.

Unfair advantage?

Hucker said Lake Central School Corp. gave the pro-referendum group an unfair advantage.

"If they had done everything legal, and they had won the referendum legally, I probably would have been one of the first ones to congratulate them for doing a good job," Hucker said. "But that isn't how it was."

Hucker's complaints before the Lake County elections board do not include the school corporation's denial of his request for the same mailing list that the Sept. 8 email by Veracco indicates went to Friends of Lake Central Schools.

Hucker's public records request was filed Oct. 21 — a month and a half after Veracco sent an email saying the district had released parents' email addresses to the political action committee.

In a public records denial letter dated Nov. 2, Assistant Superintendent Al Gandolfi told Hucker that the district had no record of the political action committee requesting the records Hucker wanted.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Joe Hoage said a public entity can't deny access to a record it already has generated and given to another party.

But even if Lake Central School Corp. did give out parents' email addresses in violation of state law, it is unlikely school officials will be penalized for it.

Enforcing the law

The Lake County elections board, Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, Secretary of State's Indiana Election Division, Indiana Department of Education and Indiana attorney general's office said their offices have no jurisdiction over questions of state law pertaining to promoting a position on a referendum.

Ryan Preston, an office supervisor of schools and townships for the State Board of Accounts, said his agency would investigate only allegations relating to financial compliance — not the dissemination of parents' email addresses.

He confirmed the agency received a financially related complaint about Lake Central School Corp. in December. That complaint was added to a file that will be reviewed when the agency audits the school district.

The Lake County prosecutor's office has the power to file an infraction against anyone who violates state law requiring equal access to facilities and equipment when promoting a position on a referendum. Hucker said he also asked the prosecutor's office to file charges against the volunteers who removed his "vote no" signs — but he said he did not hear back.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said his office has deferred to the Lake County elections board for a determination on whether the sign issue was a violation of law. He said if the board refers the case back to his office, he would take it.

Carter also said his office had not been asked to look into the issue of parents' email addresses — but he said he would do so if it came under his authority. He said he likely would ask Indiana State Police to handle that investigation.

Hero said he and Hucker will pursue all avenues to overturn the results of November's referendum and get the taxpayers restitution for what Hero believes was theft of public funds.

"You have a school system that is supposed to teach the children of St. John Township ethics and good citizenship, yet ... educators were giving pro-referendum people a campaign headquarters and using taxpayer dollars to promote their own agenda," Hero said. "It's a bad precedent to set with the young people."

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