Kentucky GOP sifting through teachers’ emails for political misuse


Dec. 14, 2018

The Republican Party of Kentucky has sent a wave of open records requests for the work emails of several teachers, including some who ran for office in November’s election — a move it said was a way to see if there was widespread misuse of government resources.

But some educators see it as an intimidation tactic.

While the GOP has declined to say how many requests it has submitted or for whom, at least some of the requests are for Democratic candidates who lost their elections.

“I think the reason they’re doing it is they want to make everybody afraid to run again, afraid to run against the establishment next time,” said Dustin Allen, a teacher in Laurel County who made an unsuccessful bid for the Kentucky House’s 87th District.

More headlines: Kentucky Supreme Court strikes down pension reform law

Allen said his superintendent informed him that he received an open records request asking for any of Allen’s emails that included a slew of different keywords, including “charter schools,” “sewer bill,” “Bevin” and “#120Strong” — a reference to a hashtag used by advocates urging teachers in all 120 of Kentucky’s counties to stand united against the controversial pension reform bill.

Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson confirmed that Jake Cox, deputy communications director for the party, submitted records requests to school districts but declined to say which ones or how many. He said at least two, including Laurel County, have denied the requests on the grounds that the requests were “overly broad” and “vague.”

The first records request was sent in October, Watson said, after the party got some tips “about a lot of extremely, directly political email traffic going through the school system on teachers’ emails.”

After the election, the party decided to see if there were similar issues in other counties, so it submitted more records requests, he said.

Watson denied the requests were meant as intimidation, saying they were about “information gathering, whether government resources are used for political activity, and how widespread it is.” He said the party is trying to “decide what to do with all this stuff” after seeing what it finds in the emails.

Read this: ‘You’re accountable to us’: Kentucky teachers celebrate pension ruling

Allen posted a video on his personal Facebook page after he learned about the open records request, saying the GOP was “trying to find dirt on me” and saying he’d welcome party members to come visit and talk with him.

“It’s made me more angry than anything else that they would try something like that,” Allen said Thursday. He originally planned to stay away from politics in the near future but now plans to knock on doors in the next election, he said.

This fall, more than 30 educators ran for the Kentucky General Assembly amid widespread discontent over last spring’s passed pension legislation. But despite optimism that the energy from teacher demonstrations would help, November results for the teacher candidates — who were largely Democrats — were mixed at best.

Christina Trosper, a Knox County teacher who used to be active in the #120Strong movement, said she was galled to hear about the open records requests for former candidates’ emails.

“The fact that it came after the election, for candidates who lost, it feels like, to me, a classic intimidation tactic,” she said.

The superintendent of the Barren County School District confirmed Thursday that his district did receive an open records request for emails of LaToya Drake, a Democrat who used to work in the school district and lost a bid for the House 23rd District against incumbent Rep. Steve Riley.

See also: What does the Kentucky pension reform ruling mean for teachers?

Caldwell County Schools also confirmed receiving an open records request but did not provide any further information about the request.

Rockcastle County Schools — which employed Travis Brenda, the Republican who upset House Republican Leader Jonathan Shell in the primaries — said it had not received any similar records request.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said he’s concerned the requests from the GOP could discourage teachers from advocating for their students or schools.

He said he agrees that educators who want to engage in political advocacy for or against candidates should do so on their own time and on personal emails. But he said that educators should be able to communicate about the impact legislation could have on students and public education.

“It’s really important to distinguish between politics, which is advocating for or against the election of a candidate, and legislative issues, which involves citizens communicating with their elected leaders about bills in Frankfort and things like that,” McKim said.

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