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Controversial school board race could be decided by a drawing

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Controversial school board race could be decided by a drawing

Dec 01, 2023 | 7:03 pm ET
By Clark Kauffman
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Controversial school board race could be decided by a drawing
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(Photo by Getty Images)

A hotly contested race for school board in a small eastern Iowa community may be decided by a drawing on Monday.

The Scott County Auditor’s Office recently presided over a recount for one of the races involving a seat on the school board for the Pleasant Valley Community School District.

Initially, the results of the Nov. 7 election indicated challenger Jameson Smith had beaten incumbent Tracey Rivera on a vote of 256 to 250. Rivera then requested a recount which led to a new controversy involving Iowa’s own version of a hanging-chad dispute.

An assistant Scott County attorney had allegedly explained to the three parties handling the recount that because the Nov. 7 election involved the use of optical scanners, any write-in votes could only be counted if the oval alongside the line for the name of a write-in candidates was filled in by the voter.

One of the individuals involved in the recount objected to a ballot in which the oval was not filled in, while the other two individuals argued such ballots should be counted since the intent of the voter was clear. Rivera allegedly benefitted from the majority decision to count two such ballots as valid, and that led to a determination that the candidates were tied at 255 votes each.

With the process headed toward a randomized outcome, with the election to be decided by a drawing, attorney Alan Ostergren wrote to the county auditor and lodged a protest on behalf of Smith.

In his letter, Ostergren warned that the decision to count the two contested votes for Rivera created “the danger of Ms. Rivera, as the loser of this race, being declared the winner.”  Ostergren warned that “if this occurs, the outcome will surely be overturned in an election-contest proceeding” that would result in a needless waste of taxpayer dollars.

Scott County Auditor Kerri Tompkins said Friday that despite the objections that have been raised, the matter will go before the Scott County Board of Supervisors on Monday as part of a formal process called a recanvass.

“The recanvass is basically just the board certifying the results (of the recount),” she said. “It’s entirely up to the board as to whether they certify the outcome and make that determination.”

Should the board certify the results as a tie, Tompkins said, there will be an immediate drawing to determine the winner of the race.

“We’ll put each candidate’s name in a plastic Easter egg and then we’ll have a drawing,” she said. “It would be the board – probably the board chair – who would conduct the drawing.”

Smith’s supporters said Friday they are “100% percent committed” to challenging the county’s actions in court should Rivera be designated the winner on Monday.

District charges $50 an hour to disclose records

School board elections in Pleasant Valley are normally waged without controversy, but there have been allegations this year that district staff campaigned for candidates during work hours and coordinated the placement of campaign signs using district email accounts.

That issue has been exacerbated by concerns over the district’s handling of Open Records Law requests to obtain emails and other district records.

Superintendent Brian Strusz said Friday the district has complied, or is in the process of complying, with all requests for public documents. He said some of the requested documents were being made available that same day, while hundreds of others had already been turned over.

“We are working on all of this, and we are not trying to do anything illegal at all,” Strusz said. “It’s a very difficult situation.”

Last week, district resident Amy McCabe filed a complaint against the school district with the Iowa Public Information Board. In her complaint, McCabe said that on Oct. 26 she asked for certain district records and was told there would be 1,162 pages relevant to her request that would have to be reviewed to determined whether they included confidential information.

The district told McCabe it would charge her a fee of $50.47 per hour for the administrative staff to conduct that review and determine what information it was willing to disclose. The total estimated cost was $488.72, McCabe said.

In her complaint, McCabe said the district then denied her more than 400 pages of records, refusing even to turn over redacted versions of those documents.

The board has yet to act on the complaint.