District email questioned

Parent believes correspondence is unethical, skirts state law

2407
Left to right: Dr. James White, Karen Green, Greg Duffy

By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – The Piedmont school board election is heating up with a recent email from the district that some believed implied an indirect endorsement of Board of Education President Karen Green.

Melanie Berry, who has two children in the district, said she received an email that was sent out to all parents on Friday, January 12. She forwarded the email to the Piedmont-Surrey Gazette.

“How ethical is it for the school to use its access to all the parent emails to let them know Karen Green is running for the board and not mention the other candidate,” she wrote.

State law in Oklahoma prohibits school officials from endorsing a candidate in a board of education race.

The email is from the district’s administration offices notifying parents that the deadline to register to vote is Friday, Jan. 19 for the Feb. 13 election day.

“The Ward 3 seat up for election is currently held by school board president Karen Green,” the email reads and leaves out any mention of her opponent Greg Duffy.

Berry also stated in an email that two teachers from two different school sites told her that at the faculty Christmas party “White all but told staff to vote for Green. He went on and on about all the great things she has done in her 10 years on the board and that the board members begged her to run for a 3rd term,” she wrote.

Berry, who is not a district employee, did not attend the party. Duffy said he was also contacted about the email and the Christmas party.

“I would have to assume all district emails are approved by the superintendent. I looked at other school district communications and some of them didn’t say anything about their elections. Deer Creek has a similar post on their website, but it has both the names of those who are running for the position. I think there’s an ethical way of doing this and I question somewhat how ethical that is. I think it’s ethical for a public official, which a superintendent basically is, to involve themselves in the political issues to provide the facts. Voters will decide the outcome, from the school board elections to the presidential elections. It’s important not to influence elections,” he said.

Duffy did not attend the Christmas party, but was concerned that the account might have been true. Still, Duffy said he’s operating his campaign on his credentials.

“I have not made an issue out of running against Green, but that I’m running for the position on the school board. I think my qualifications are excellent and my past experience will contribute to the schools and the community,” he said.

Superintendent James White acknowledged he approved the email, but not with any intent to sway voters.

“It was strictly informational to be aware of which seat was open. We find that people don’t know which seat is up by the ward, but by the name of board member,” he said.

However, anyone who lives in the Piedmont school district can vote regardless of which ward they reside. The email points out, “Do you live in Sundance??  You can vote!  Do you live in Chapel Creek or Colony Pointe??  You can vote!  Do you live in Savannah Estates?? How about Vizcaya??  You can vote!” the email reads.

White said most people do not realize they are not limited by wards and the email was to educate the public about their right to vote.

He acknowledged the Christmas party, but remembered it as a time to thank teachers, staff, and board members rather than a pitch for Green’s election.

“I do recall our faculty Christmas celebration where we get together and give out donated Christmas (gift) cards and bonuses for teachers. Board members are invited to that to thank them for their support of our school. I remember pointing that out. I don’t remember how many board members were in attendance,” he said.

White denied he has promoted or endorsed Green in her re-election bid.

“I wouldn’t have said that. It’s possible I mentioned it was up for re-election,” he said.
Duffy said his campaign is going well and he is hearing suggestions from those who pledge to vote for him. Transparency and communication are two issues he’s heard on the other side of citizens’ front doors.

“I want to see more transparency and better communication between the school board and the public, whether that’s the media, or parents, and all patrons in the district. There is good communication with the parents through social media, but it is not that way for the grandparents and us older folks,” he said. “Things like where are we with the bond construction and renovation projects? Why is the turnover rate so high? I had a teacher tell me that the district has about 60 teachers, but between 13 to 19 have left.”

Duffy said a successful district is operated, in part, due to clear goals.

“I was asked to serve on a planning committee to work with the board about 25 years ago. We met to see where we were headed and it was a pretty in-depth plan, but that probably needs to be revisited and updated. We’ve gone from a 2A school to a 5A and the growth is going to continue.”

With grandchildren attending public schools, Duffy is on site at schools for their activities. He has his own concerns about safety at the middle school.

“I went in to pick up my grandson and I had access to the cafeteria, the gym, and down around the corner to the students. Anyone could have entered the building. I know the funding is difficult, but we have to find a way to find the funds to secure the building. We’ve seen it (gun violence) happen across the country and we don’t like to think it can happen in Piedmont, but we have to make sure to deter it,” he said.

Duffy and his wife Jerrie moved to Piedmont 39 years ago, largely because of the quality of the school district. Jerrie worked for the district administration for 25 years.

“I couldn’t run for the school board because she worked for the district. Now it’s a chance for me to serve,” he said.

He plans to contribute to the board and the public openness.

“I again made a decision that I am going to run my campaign based on honesty, straightforwardness, and my qualifications. I think integrity is important. If you have integrity, you have all those other things. I firmly believe in everything that one does in life comes down to basically one thing and that is do what’s right. We can judge ourselves by did I do what was right.”

Duffy retired in 2009 from a successful career with Oklahoma’s Department of Wildlife Conservation where he served as executive director for 17 years, making him the longest tenured director in the country at the time.

With a budget of more than $15 million annually and 325 full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers, the challenges and goals at the wildlife department were met with success, Duffy said. In that role, he worked with the governor, government officials around the state and country, board members and constituents to manage Oklahoma’s wildlife.