District withheld error for days
Official suggested trying to keep Pitton in race
District 51 knew it had mistakenly certified Paul Pitton as a District B candidate for school board but chose to keep that information under wraps for several days, apparently at the recommendation of its attorney and director of communications, according to emails obtained by The Daily Sentinel.
Before the district informed the public of its mistake, its director of communications, Dan Dougherty, suggested the district reach out to Pitton to encourage him to stay in the election, a recommendation that had potential to influence the election’s outcome.
The emails also reveal how district administrators, after making the decision to notify the public of the error, carefully considered how, when and what to tell district staff, parents and the media about Pitton’s eligibility and whether votes for him would count.
In a series of emails exchanged between Superintendent Steve Schultz, district communications staff and other employees, Dougherty emphasized the need to flood media outlets and social media with positive stories about the district in an effort to overcome the negative public reaction to the district’s error.
The Sentinel obtained the emails Friday under the Colorado Open Records Act. The newspaper requested access to all emails sent or received between Oct. 15 and Oct. 26 by all five school board members: Schultz; Dougherty; attorney for the district David Price; Terri Wells, the executive assistant to the school board who mistakenly certified Pitton; and district spokeswoman Emily Shockley. The district provided those emails, with the exception of emails to or from Price, citing attorney-client privilege.
Wells informed Pitton on ?Oct. 15 that he did not reside in District B.
“In speaking with (Price), he stated the only option you would have to stay a candidate is to move into District B,” Wells wrote. “If that is not an option for you, I have attached a withdrawal form which the county and the District needs you to fill out and return.”
Two days later, current District B board member Ann Tisue held a news conference to inform the public that Pitton did not live in the district in which he was certified to run.
Also on Oct. 17, Schultz and Dougherty decided not to release a public statement addressing the error.
“I suggest we hold this until tomorrow or Monday morning to see how it plays in the media and if it causes Pitton to make a decision, which would change our response,” Dougherty wrote in an email to Schultz. He included two options for a letter to district parents and staff confirming the mistake.
In response to the initial Oct. 17 Daily Sentinel article about Tisue’s revelation, Dougherty wrote: “... I think it causes us to wait until Sunday or Monday to release a statement … Let’s sit back and read the community for now.”
Later that day, Schultz and Dougherty discussed addressing the mistake and how to word a public statement.
Ballots for the election, which included Pitton as a candidate to represent District B, had been mailed to voters well before, on Oct. 13.
It wasn’t until just after 6 p.m. on Oct. 19 that Shockley, in response to questions from The Sentinel, issued the district’s first public statement about the district’s error.
On Oct. 21, Dougherty emailed Schultz and Wells a document of “thought starters and response elements to the illogical and nasty editorial in today’s paper.” He then went on to claim that The Sentinel’s “commentary clearly reveals that they are anti-public education at their core.”
The Sentinel’s editorial criticized the district for being slow to notify the public.
In the first sentence of the email, Dougherty wrote: “It might be a good idea to reach out to Pitton to encourage him not to withdraw at this point. By staying in, the will of the people will be known and no votes will have been cast in vain.”
Pitton told The Sentinel on Saturday he had not been contacted by the district about whether he should withdraw from the election.
Dougherty also anticipated a continued negative public reaction toward the school district.
“Actions taken after the election will trigger new waves of animosity-filled commentary,” Dougherty wrote.
“It’s to help contextualize these comments and letters that I think sending a letter to parents and staff may be wise.”
He also recommended the district focus on its positive work.
“We also want to continue with operations and communications as normal to show through action that this is but one raft in a sea of positive efforts,” he wrote.
“As we suffer through undue criticism, please focus on the many great things we’re doing and remain undeterred in our mission,” Dougherty later wrote.
Shortly after he sent that email to Schultz and Wells, Dougherty sent an email to the district communications team outlining a plan to push out positive stories about the district and acknowledging the district should have released a public statement immediately.
“...We should have spread the word immediately upon confirming the mistake,” Dougherty said. “That was our/my advice to leadership, but it was over-ruled by the legal team. Now, we will suffer a bit.”
Dougherty emphasized the importance of “providing an abundance of positive stories to the media,” especially the new District 51 phone application.
“I want Cat (Foster), Jeannie (Smith) and Emily (Shockley) each writing releases and reaching out to the media if necessary to achieve a steady stream of daily contact,” Dougherty said.
Schultz sent a letter to district parents and staff on ?Oct. 23 apologizing for the mistake, outlining the steps that had been taken to correct it, and listing the accomplishments and attributes of district staff and administration.
Much of the letter was written by Dougherty in his Oct. 21 email to Schultz and Wells.
“Our error caught us by surprise and the complexity of the situation delayed our response, but we did not want to follow one mistake with another made in haste,” Schultz wrote. “We felt obligated to the community and candidates to respond with accurate information.”
Three Mesa County residents filed a petition last week asking a judge to rule on whether Pitton is eligible for election. Chief District Judge David Bottger will preside over the hearing, set for 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Mesa County Justice Center.
The petition was filed by Kent Carson, Dale Pass and James “Gil” Tisue against Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner and Wells.