Coaches accused of recruiting students to campaign for teacher

EVERETT — The superintendent of the Everett School District is investigating whether cross country runners at two high schools were improperly enlisted by coaches to aid the campaign of a teacher running for state representative.

Superintendent Gary Cohn launched the probe after hearing that runners for Jackson and Cascade high schools were asked at a practice last week to canvass neighborhoods on behalf of Democratic candidate Mike Wilson.

Meanwhile Monday, Republicans alleged that Wilson has used his computer at Cascade High School to conduct his campaign.

The campaign of Republican candidate Mark Harmsworth released emails reportedly from Wilson’s school computer in which he corresponds with students, staff and a political consultant about the campaign. The emails were obtained from the school district through a public records request, according to Harmsworth.

The district probe and GOP claims emerge as Wilson and Harmsworth are engaged in a tight battle for an open seat in the 44th Legislative District in Snohomish County.

Wilson, a longtime teacher of government and U.S. history at Cascade, said he had no role in organizing the runners for campaign activity off school grounds and after school hours.

As to the emails, he denied misusing school resources, though he acknowledged he might have inadvertently replied to one or two emails during the school day.

“I’ve been very careful to keep my school life and public life separate,” he said.

Harmsworth didn’t accuse his opponent of any wrongdoing involving students.

“I found it concerning,” he said. “I don’t know the whole story yet.”

As for the emails, he said that as a Mill Creek City Council member, he knows the importance of “not mixing political activities with taxpayer-funded resources.”

Kevin Carns, who steers the political operation of the House Republican Caucus, didn’t refrain from blasting Wilson’s actions.

“He started this election illegally and he’s finishing it illegally,” said Carns, who is political director of the House Republican Organizational Committee.

The school district investigation stems from an incident last Wednesday, when runners for boys and girls teams at Jackson and Cascade high schools gathered at McCollum Park, where they were given maps of neighborhoods and homes where they should drop off literature.

The father of Jackson High athletes emailed Cohn the next day. He said his children did not want to participate but were handed material to give out. The experience left them “visibly upset,” according to the email.

Cohn said that if what the father described is true, it should never have happened.

The superintendent notified Wilson of the investigation, which will determine if any policies or election laws were violated. He said he hoped for a rapid conclusion.

“We should not be using district resources to influence campaigns, period,” Cohn said. “We should not be involving students in campaign activities as part of their athletic activities. Period. What students do on their time, away from school activities, isn’t for us to comment on.”

On Friday, principals of Cascade and Jackson high schools sent identical letters to parents of runners, assuring them that action had been taken “to ensure that it does not happen again.”

Runners from Glacier Peak High School in the Snohomish School District also were involved that day.

“This request should not have occurred, and we have discussed with the coach to make sure it does not happen again,” district spokeswoman Kristin Foley wrote in an email.

Wilson said a coach — he wouldn’t name him or her or the school — offered to organize students to volunteer. Wilson also went to the park that day.

“I did not encourage them to do anything,” he said. “I was not in charge of recruiting volunteers. I was approached with an opportunity to use student volunteers. I kept everything clean. I made sure our campaign did this activity off school grounds, not on school property and not during school hours.”

Regarding the emails, there is a batch dated Feb. 27 in which Wilson receives a copy of a proposed contract with consulting firm WinPower Strategies. There’s another in which Wilson, using his private Gmail account, returns the contract, apparently via the school computer.

In other emails, Wilson asks a person to be on his advisory group and a student to come take his picture for campaign material.

“There might be an error,” Wilson said after being told of the emails. “My intentions are pure. You’ll find no ulterior motives. I work hard to make sure I’ve done things right.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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