Evidence for illegal electioneering on bond issue mounts in St. Joseph, Missouri school district

The superintendent, director of communications and other St. Joseph, Missouri school district (SJSD) employees used district resources to coordinate and promote the yes campaign in a school bond…

The superintendent, director of communications and other St. Joseph, Missouri school district (SJSD) employees used district resources to coordinate and promote the yes campaign in a school bond issue that passed April 2.

The Lion originally reported that Superintendent Gabe Edgar’s “thank you” video, published on district social media a day after the bond passed, appeared to describe unlawful district coordination with the pro-bond campaign committee.

Emails obtained by The Lion through a Missouri Sunshine request now reveal the extent of the coordination: multiple district employees used district emails and on-the-clock time to liaise with the committee and work on pro-bond materials – actions that appear to violate Missouri law.

Section 115.646 of the Missouri statutes “prohibit school districts from using public funds to support a ballot measure.” Those who violate the provision commit a class four election offense – a misdemeanor subject to imprisonment of up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both, under Section 115.637

In a district email sent Feb. 7 to all school staff members, Edgar gave an open invitation to join a campaign committee “we are forming” in support of the bond.

“We are forming a committee to support the upcoming April bond issue and we need your help! Your involvement could make a big difference,” the email reads.

As becomes clear in later email correspondence, “the committee” refers to the pro-bond Political Action Committee called The Friends of SJSD, which Edgar also thanked in the video sent out by the district the day after the bond passed, referring to it as the “yes committee.” 

“Joining the committee would be completely voluntary. No work on the bond issue can be done during your scheduled work hours,” Edgar’s February email to all employed staff continues. 

Although Edgar’s use of district resources for campaign volunteer recruitment appears to be illegal, his warning to other district employees not to work on the campaign during work hours indicates some awareness of Missouri electioneering rules. 

In his email, Edgar does not specify who else helped him put together the campaign committee, which was co-chaired by Nestle Purina Manager of Veterinary Services Melanie Barnes and LifeLine Foods CEO Kevin Kelly.

Emails obtained by The Lion that include Edgar, Barnes and Kelly indicate a number of other regular committee participants, mostly employed by the district or associated with the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce.

In a Feb. 20 email from SJSD Human Resource Manager Heather Adams to Edgar, Barnes, Kelly, and a handful of presumable campaign committee participants, Adams attached an agenda along with marketing assets to be discussed at the committee’s meeting, scheduled for the same night. 

The next day, SJSD Communications Director Eileen Houston-Stewart emailed Schneider Electric (SE) Regional Marketing Manager Chelsea Butler, who had emailed a few weeks before with pro-bond “promo materials.” The district spent around $10 million having SE upgrade HVAC systems within the last few years.

“I had some quick mock ups made of bond vote promo materials,” Butler wrote to Houston-Stewart on Feb. 1. “If you [sic] interested in using any of these, I’d be happy to edit them how you see fit and turn them over to you to utilize in preparation of the vote.”

In Houston-Stewart’s reply mid-morning on Wednesday Feb. 21, she asked Butler for a phone call to discuss the “marketing collaterals” since the campaign committee had just met “last evening.”

The same day, committee participant Sharon Kosek asked Houston-Stewart to meet with her and committee participant Tama Wagner about “yard sign strategies” at the Chamber of Commerce office later in the week, to which Houston-Stewart replied, “Yes I can.”

A few days later, on Monday Feb. 26 at around 2 p.m., Houston-Stewart emailed Wagner, asking her for potential edits to campaign committee marketing materials. Houston-Stewart explains she attempted to send the email to Wagner through a personal email address but resorted to her district email when the original message failed to send.

In an email sent around the same time, Houston-Stewart also asked Kosek for feedback on the materials. 

Adams sent out another invite to committee participants from her district email on Monday March 4 at 2:11 p.m. about the next campaign committee meeting, to which Kristie Arthur, Director of Workforce Development at the Chamber, replied.

Arthur asked Adams to “have everyone at the district” update a google form with personal email addresses “so we can send them vote yes info.” 

“I just sent them all an email,” Adams replied.

The emails seem to indicate clear coordination between district employees and a political action committee, especially in the early weeks of the campaign, in support of the ballot measure, using district resources.

In his April 3 video, Edgar says this:

“But I [would] also like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the ‘yes committee’ that was put together. Thank you to Eileen Houston-Stewart for coordinating that from the district end.” 

However, in a statement to The Lion, Edgar himself flatly denied any involvement in the campaign, and explained what he meant by “coordination.”

“With regard to your questions related to my involvement in any campaign measures, I was not involved in campaigning for the bond,” he wrote in an email. “My statement [in the video] related to being more distant from this process related to the fact that, due to various District obligations this year, my ability to attend meetings to provide factual information to the public was more limited this year than in past bond measures.”

Edgar also explained that the “coordination” of Houston-Stewart with the campaign committee was to refer “community groups” interested in supporting the bond to the Friends of SJSD PAC.

“As communications director, Mrs. Houston-Stewart acted to refer interested community groups to Friends of SJSD when they inquired about supporting the bond and ensuring the District website was updated to include factual information related to the bond,” he wrote to The Lion. 

When The Lion asked whether Houston-Stewart referred community members or groups who contacted the district in opposition to the bond to the campaign committee that opposed the bond, Edgar said Houston-Stewart received no such communication. 

“Ms. Houston-Stewart did not receive any communications from individuals who opposed the bond, so she did not refer anyone to an opposition committee,” he wrote.

However, experts consulted by The Lion say the email correspondence obtained through the Sunshine request, described above, is “clearly inappropriate under Missouri law.”

“Using public resources to advocate for a ballot measure – including a district’s email system and staff time – is clearly inappropriate under Missouri law,” Liberty Justice Center (LJC) attorney Dean McGee told The Lion. “This matter should be investigated by the Missouri Ethics Commission and Secretary of State.”

Previously, LJC board member and education policy expert Corey DeAngelis told The Lion that Edgar’s thank you video raised “serious concerns.”

“A public school district superintendent thanking his own director of communications for coordinating ‘from the district end’ in support of passing a bond raises serious concerns about potential electioneering with public resources,” he said, also calling for Missouri officials to investigate.  

Under Missouri law, any person may file a complaint related to unlawful electioneering with the Secretary of State, who then has 30 days to decide either to dismiss it or “commence an investigation.”