School board ethics panel sides with Yoho in dispute over union contributions

Oct. 12—The ethics panel for the Frederick County Board of Education has ruled that member Karen Yoho did not violate board policy by accepting support from school employees' unions in her re-election bid.

Yoho is the only incumbent in the race for four seats on the school board in the Nov. 8 general election. She is one of four candidates 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 worth of in-kind contributions from the Maryland State Education Association's Fund For Children And Public Education PAC, according to campaign finance reports.

MSEA is the parent organization of the Frederick County Teachers Association. Its PAC uses funds donated by teachers and their immediate family members to help elect "pro-public education candidates" across the state.

The PAC's contributions to Yoho took the form of direct-mail materials, publicity cards and other advertisements.

Board member Liz Barrett — who dropped her re-election bid after finishing seventh in the July 19 primary — filed an ethics complaint against Yoho in July, taking issue with the fact that Yoho accepted support from MSEA while the board was still in contract negotiations with FCTA.

The board ratified FCTA's contract for this school year on June 1.

Barrett did not seek the unions' endorsement this year. She applied for it in 2018, but did not receive it.

A quorum of the ethics panel heard arguments on Sept. 21 from Barrett and from Yoho's attorney.

The ethics panel released its opinion on Sept. 26, siding unanimously with Yoho.

Panel members noted that the board's ethics policy specifically excludes campaign contributions from the definition of a "gift," as does the Maryland Public Ethics Law.

"Based upon the plain and unambiguous language in the Board's Ethics Policy and the Maryland Public Ethics Law, Ms. Yoho did not receive a 'Gift' from any of the employee associations or unions at issue," the opinion reads.

Yoho said she thought it was unreasonable to argue that employee unions shouldn't be allowed to support incumbent candidates.

"My thought was always, 'How is it fair to silence teachers and other education personnel from having a say in who they want to be elected?'" Yoho said.

Plus, she took issue with Barrett's argument that the timing of the contributions was problematic. Yoho argued that board members "are really always in negotiations" with the employees' unions, regardless of the time of year.

The ethics panel's findings are confidential unless a respondent chooses to publicize them.

Yoho said she shared the opinion with the News-Post because the facts of the dispute had already been reported in the newspaper and discussed in the community.

"Because people did hear the beginnings, I thought they should be able to hear the endings," she said.

Barrett wrote in a statement sent via text message that she appreciated the ethics panel's work, but disagreed with its ruling.

"If a Board of Ed candidate received campaign contributions and promotional advertising from a roofing contractor and then the Board of Ed member voted to approve a contract with that roofing contractor for FCPS roofing, we'd have an issue," she wrote. "This is no different."

Yoho didn't receive any contributions directly from the employees' unions, and the contributions she received from their parent organizations weren't 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 says that "trust is eroded when the conduct of public business is subject to improper influence and even the appearance of improper influence."

"[M]y experience and perspective is in good business practices and avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest," Barrett wrote. "Polar factions in politics dilute independence and critical thinking."

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek