The Frederick County School Board Ethics Committee has ruled that member Karen Yoho did not violate board policy by accepting support from school employee unions in her bid for re-election.
Yoho is the sole incumbent in the race for four school board seats in the Nov. 8 general election. She is one of four nominees endorsed by the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA), which represents more than 3,000 educators across the county.
Between April and July, that endorsement earned Yoho about $2,000 in in-kind contributions from the Maryland State Education Association’s PAC Children’s and Public Education Fund, according to campaign fundraising reports.
MSEA is the parent organization of the Frederick County Teachers’ Association. His PAC uses funds donated by teachers and their immediate family members to help elect “pro-public education candidates” across the state.
PAC’s contributions to Yoho took the form of direct mail materials, ad cards, and other publicity.
Board member Liz Barrett — who dropped out of her re-election bid after finishing seventh in the July 19 primary — filed an ethics complaint against Yoho in July, challenging Yoho’s acceptance of endorsement from MSEA while the board was still in contract negotiations with FCTA.
The board ratified the FCTA contract for this school year on June 1.
Barrett did not seek union approval this year. She applied for it in 2018, but did not receive it.
A quorum of the ethics committee heard arguments Sept. 21 from Barrett and Yoho’s attorney.
The ethics committee issued its opinion on September 26, unanimously siding with Yoho.
Panel members noted that the council’s ethics policy specifically excludes campaign contributions from the definition of a “gift,” as does Maryland’s public ethics law.
“Based on the plain and unambiguous language of the Board’s Ethics Policy and Maryland’s Public Ethics Act, Ms. Yoho did not receive a ‘gift’ from any of the employee associations or unions. at issue,” the opinion states.
Yoho said she thinks it’s unreasonable to argue that employee unions shouldn’t be allowed to endorse incumbents.
“My thinking has always been, ‘How fair is it to silence teachers and other education personnel so they have a say in who they want elected? ‘” Yoho said.
Additionally, she took issue with Barrett’s argument that the timing of the contributions was problematic. Yoho argued that board members “really are always in negotiations” with employee unions, regardless of the time of year.
The conclusions of the ethics committee are confidential unless a respondent decides to make them public.
Yoho said she agreed with the News-Post because the facts of the dispute had already been reported in the newspaper and discussed in the community.
“Because people heard the beginnings, I thought they should be able to hear the endings,” she said.
Barrett wrote in a texted statement that she appreciated the work of the ethics committee, but disagreed with its decision.
“If a Board of Ed candidate received campaign contributions and promotional publicity from a roofing contractor, and then the Board of Ed member voted to approve a contract with that roofing contractor for FCPS roofing, we would have a problem,” she wrote. “It’s no different.”
Yoho received no contributions directly from the employee unions, and the contributions it received from their parent organizations were not monetary donations.
Still, Barrett argued that Yoho’s actions gave the wrong impression and went against the spirit of the board’s ethics policy, which states that “trust is eroded when the conduct of public business is subject to improper influence and even the appearance of improper influence”.
“[M]“Your experience and perspective are based on good business practice and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Barrett wrote. “Polar factions in politics dilute independence and critical thinking.”