Dr. Walter Watkins votes in referendum

Dr. Walter Watkins, School City of Hammond superintendent, votes in the November referendum at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on November 7, 2017.

CROWN POINT — The Lake County Board of Elections voted Tuesday to ask state auditors to look into whether the Hammond school district misused public resources by advocating for a referendum on a local radio station.

In a unanimous vote, the bipartisan elections board agreed to refer a complaint by Hammond Republican Party Chairman Charlie Kallas to the State Board of Accounts for further review.

“I am very satisfied with the board’s ruling on the matter,” Kallas, who is running for an at-large Hammond council seat, told The Times. “We’ll keep pursuing this until we get to the bottom.”

Kallas first accused the School City of Hammond of wrongdoing in August 2018, when he filed a complaint alleging the district had improperly allowed senior officials to appear on WJOB radio shows to speak in support of a November 2017 special referendum.

Because the appearances were paid for with public funds, Kallas argued, they violated a section of the Indiana education code that prohibits an “expenditure of money from a fund controlled by the school corporation to promote a position on the referendum.”

The referendum involved two separate proposals — asking voters to borrow $110 million to build a new high school and imposing a property tax hike to fund new teaching and staff positions. Hammond voters approved both questions.

In the run up to the November 2017 vote, senior Hammond school officials, including assistant superintendent Theresa Mayerik and director of business services Alesia Pritchett, made a series of appearances on WJOB programs. The air time was reserved in an annual contract with WJOB, paid by the school district on a monthly basis, according to Pritchett.

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In their radio spots, Hammond school officials made no secret of their support for both proposals, saying they were necessary to offset state education funding cuts.

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“We really hope that the referendum will pass,” Mayerik said during a Sept. 20, 2017 appearance.

Monica Conrad, legal counsel for Hammond schools, conceded top school officials had advocated in favor of referendum questions during their radio interviews. But she contended they were within their rights to do so, citing a section of the education code that carves out an exception for certain senior officials to speak for or against a referendum “at any time.”

The elections board ultimately determined that Hammond schools hadn’t run afoul of any provisions of state election law. On the question of misuse of public funds, however, board members said the issue could only be settled by state auditors.

“The issue is whether this board has jurisdiction over whether funds were misappropriated,” board chair Kevin Smith, a Democrat, said. “It’s not this board’s jurisdiction.”

“We have an obligation to refer this to the State Board of Accounts,” he added.

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