Dozens of people gathered outside the West Ada School District office Monday to call for Board Chair Amy Johnson to recuse herself from public health decisions or step down.
The rally — held outside of where trustees were having their board meeting — came after a recall effort was launched against Johnson, alleging the board chair has a conflict of interest because she has been working for Blue Cross of Idaho, a health insurance company that has supported COVID-19 vaccines and masks, while she has been involved in making public health decisions for the district.
Parents have said Johnson has viewed decisions through an epidemiological lens, instead of by how they affect education.
Johnson told the Idaho Statesman late last month she wouldn’t let the recall effort be a distraction. She said she ran for school board because she is a mom and wanted to do everything she could to fight for kids, and she planned to remain focused on doing that.
On Monday, she shared with the Statesman an opinion the district received from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office on the alleged conflict of interest, which she said “confirms no conflict of interest exists.”
At the rally Monday night, people held up signs reading “Put my education first” and “Smiling faces think Amy should step down.”
David Binetti — who has been leading the recall effort and founded the West Ada Parents Association, which supports a mask-optional policy — called for a “full and thorough investigation.”
“All we’re asking for and all we have asked for from the beginning is that we put kids first,” Binetti said. “It is their job. What is not their job is to serve as public health officials.”
He vowed to keep fighting.
“We are never going to stop,” he told the crowd. “… We are not going to stop this fight until we put kids first.”
On the sidewalk leading up to the stairs outside of the board meeting, shoes were lined up behind one another, symbolizing students who had left the district. Each pair of shoes had a piece of paper next to it explaining why the student left the district. The shoes, representing real students who unenrolled, was part of a separate demonstration.
A few parents also showed up in support of Johnson, with orange shirts reading “We support you.” The back of the shirts read: “Zero tolerance for bullying.”
Meghann Bostrom, one of the parents, said she is tired of board members being “bullied.” The argument over the alleged conflict of interest isn’t rational, she said.
Bostrom said she expects more parents in support of Johnson and safety measures will show up to the meeting Wednesday, when the board is expected to discuss COVID-19 protocols.
Formal complaint, AG response
The rally comes after Binetti this past weekend submitted a formal complaint to Vice Chair Rene Ozuna. The complaint detailed why he believes there is a conflict of interest and calls for an evaluation to “review any and all communication that would demonstrate a prioritization of epidemiological concerns over educational ones that would stem from her profession.”
“Most important, to avoid further erosion to the public trust, you must insist Trustee Johnson immediately step down from the board chair and recuse herself from any and all future decisions that touch upon matters of public health,” the complaint said.
Before the complaint was filed, the school district received an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office about the conflict of interest claims. Johnson said in an email to reporters the district asked for the opinion from a third party and “the highest legal office in the state of Idaho” before receiving any complaint.
“We did this to ensure we were operating at the highest level of integrity and to confirm either no conflict or adjust if we were missing something,” Johnson wrote in the email. “At West Ada we strive (to) do the ‘right thing’ and the ‘best thing’ for Idaho and for our kids in West Ada, in this case the AG’s opinion confirms no conflict of interest exists.”
The analysis from the AG’s office goes into detail about specific Idaho statutes, focusing on the ethics in government, and bribery and corruption, chapters of the code.
“You have asked whether individuals serving on boards who are employed within specific positions have a conflict of interest. It appears that this question arose because boards are considering measures related to public health and safety and have members employed by insurance companies, health care providers and other employers related to these issues,” the opinion, signed by Chief Deputy Brian Kane, read.
“As explained in more detail below, unless there is a personal pecuniary benefit involved, there is no conflict of interest.”
The analysis said for a conflict of interest to exist, the board member or a member of the board member’s household “must receive a tangible measurable benefit of value.”
“Privately held policy positions, personal beliefs, or other decision-making influences not motivated by a private pecuniary benefit are not considered conflicts of interest under this definition,” the opinion said.
“… It is essential to note that stretching conflicts of interest to policy positions or strongly held personal beliefs would run counter to our system of elected representative government.”
Binetti said the response from the attorney general is “irrelevant because it clears her on a statute that doesn’t appear anywhere in the entire 380 pages of the West Ada Policy Manual.”
His complaint references the specific conflict of interest policy in the West Ada School District, which reads, in part: “The policy is designed to prevent placing a trustee in a position where the trustee’s interest in the public schools and interest in his/her place of employment (or other indirect interest) might conflict, and to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, even though such a conflict may not exist.“
Binetti continued to call for an investigation.
“The patrons of West Ada need to have faith that when education and employment seemingly conflict they need to know that their representative is choosing the former, and at an absolute minimum that requires disclosure if not recusal,” Binetti said in an email to the Statesman.
“It will only be strengthened by a full, fair, and transparent investigation into their own policies.”
Binetti has not yet submitted a formal petition for the recall, but said he is continuing to gather support since launching the effort.
Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.