Exclusive: Legal troubles mount as St. Joseph school superintendent video raises questions of illegal electioneering

Social media videos posted by the St. Joseph School District (SJSD) in Missouri raise questions about whether district employees may have illegally electioneered for the recently passed bond…

Social media videos posted by the St. Joseph School District (SJSD) in Missouri raise questions about whether district employees may have illegally electioneered for the recently passed bond issue.

Voters approved the passage of a $20 million bond issue April 2 with 66% of the vote.

But the recent video on social media calls into question how much coordination was happening between the district and a Political Action Committee (PAC), as well as traditional media and over-the-air broadcasters.

The video, which was posted to X and Facebook, features SJSD Superintendent Gabe Edgar thanking supporters of the bond issue after its passage. But he also says the district coordinated with the campaign committee that sought passage of the bond.

“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,” said Edgar in the video. 

Houston-Stewart is employed by the school district as its director of communications. But such coordination may constitute illegal electioneering, according to legal experts consulted by The Lion. 

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

Complaints can be filed by any person with the secretary of state under Missouri law.

“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,” said Corey DeAngelis, education policy expert and board member of the Liberty Justice Center, in a statement to The Lion. “Missouri officials, including the Secretary of State and Ethics Commission, should investigate immediately.”

The term “public funds” under Missouri rules includes using any school resources, such as school employees during working hours, email systems, school phone systems, school classrooms and cell phones.

The Lion reached out to the district, including Edgar and each of the school board members, for comment on exactly which resources may have been used to support the “yes committee” Edgar referred to in the video. 

The Lion also filed a Missouri Sunshine request with the district Friday, seeking any correspondence between district employees and the pro-bond PAC, The Friends of SJSD, which Edgar references as the “yes committee.” 

In a statement to The Lion, Edgar acknowledged receipt of the Sunshine request and denied that the district organized promotional events in support of the bond, but he did not explain what he meant in the video when referencing district coordination with the campaign committee. 

“We are currently reviewing that [Sunshine] request and your questions to ensure we provide an accurate response,” the superintendent said. “The district did not organize promotional events related to the bond.  As a result, we do not internally have the answers to many of your questions, but we are reviewing any information that we do have to determine if we can promptly answer your inquiries.  We appreciate your patience as we gather this information.” 

The thank you video itself, posted to district social media channels, looks to have been shot at the school, notes Dr. Edgar’s official title and has the appearance of an official SJSD video. 

Prior to the election, local News-Press NOW aired a video of students and teachers on school grounds who were advocating for the passage of the bond issue, although it’s unclear if the event and interviews were coordinated by district employees using district resources – one of the subjects of The Lion’s Sunshine request. 

Similarly, local KQ2, an over-the-air broadcaster, aired a video of students who supported the passage of the bond issue in an interview format, which may have been shot at the station, but it’s also not clear how that interview was coordinated and whether any school resources were used. 

KQ2 also aired the thank you video by Edgar, in a larger cut that was effusive in its praise of the passage of the bond. 

The Lion attempted to contact the paper and the TV station to clarify if any school resources were used in the shooting of those videos but did not receive a reply in time for publication. 

The electioneering issue is even more relevant because SJSD administrators recently have had an inauspicious run of legal troubles. 

Last year, Edgar, who was newly hired at the time, was arrested for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. 

In May, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drunk driving charge and received a six-month suspended sentence. The SJSD board decided to retain him as superintendent, reported the St. Joseph Post. 

Any additional charges against Edgar could possibly involve the revocation of the suspension and put him in jail. 

SJSD board member Whitney Lanning has also been charged with second-degree harassment stemming from a Feb. 26 confrontation with another board member. 

In a video posted by The Lion, Lanning is seen following closely behind two board members, and appears to yell something at them, before throwing her purse and a laptop against the wall and continuing to pursue them. 

The harassment charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. 

Based on the timing of The Lion’s Sunshine request, the district is legally obligated to provide a response by the end of Wednesday, including estimates of potential costs and time required to produce any correspondence between district officials and the campaign committee.