The Eagle Point School District race began amid conflict-of-interest allegations between board members in the Voters' Pamphlet. Now it's closing with claims of corruption and election fraud from a disgruntled grandmother.
Brenda Luba admits she's angry that the School Board refuses to allow her grandchildren to transfer out of the district. But Luba insists her claims that the board's contentious and "corrupt" behavior has turned the district into a "podunk Peyton Place" are not based entirely on self-interest.
Position 2: Ralph Meeker, Scott Grissom, Ron Campbell
Position 3: Dan Hodges, Mark Bateman
Position 5: Brian Saling, Curt Sather, Dianne Mihocko
"Every one of you should go to one of these school board meetings," Luba says in an exhortation to other community members.
"Nothing is getting done because of the makeup of that board."
The board's battle lines are clearly marked in Voters' Pamphlet statements and in candidates' rhetoric as Tuesday's election closes in.
Position 3 incumbent Mark Bateman, Position 5 candidate Brian Saling and Position 2 candidate Ralph Meeker are painted by some as "pro-union" and are endorsed by the Eagle Point Education Association on the Oregon Education Association's website.
Twelve-year Position 2 incumbent Scott Grissom, Saling's opponent Dianne Mihocko and Bateman's challenger Dan Hodges are considered by some as avid supporters of district Superintendent Cynda Rickert.
Luba says she's not a fan of either side. But she complained to the Jackson County Elections Office after receiving a flier from "Parents supporting Eagle Point School District #9" that urges voters to cast their ballots for Grissom, Mihocko and Hodges. Luba was unable to find any organized group with such a name.
"This gives off the stench of fraud," Luba wrote to County Clerk Chris Walker. "Please check into this for us. This School Board has many problems with two factions vying for power. The answer to their problems should not be solved by defrauding the public who, I hate to say, quite often vote like lemmings, for the flashiest campaign."
Luba's complaint was forwarded to Jennifer Hertel, compliance specialist for the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division. Also unable to find a political action committee under this name, Hertel contacted the candidates listed in the flier and also the printing company that did the mailing.
All three candidates denied knowledge of the flier. Vickie Camarena, office manager at Ram Offset Lithographers in White City, refused to disclose any information about the client(s), stating the company had the right to keep the information private.
The flier, prepared by "concerned parents of the Upper Rogue," states Bateman, Saling and Meeker "are heavily supported by the union (EPEA)."
"Bateman and Saling have a serious conflict of interest. Their spouses are union members. The same union that walked out on our kids last May," it reads, adding, "we must not allow the union to control our school board by electing the union's candidates."
The flier's statements reflect those made by Grissom and Saling in the Voters' Pamphlet. Grissom urged voters not to re-elect incumbent Bateman, while also nudging them away from Saling.
Grissom called out Bateman and departing board member Jim Mannenbach for engaging in "irresponsible decisions and behaviors." Both men have filed "frivolous complaints" against the district, Grissom alleged, adding, "none of which have been true and have cost the district thousands of dollars to defend."
"I highly recommend that you do not vote for Mark Bateman (pos. #3) and Brian Salin (sic) (pos. #5) whose spouses are both union members employed by the district," Grissom wrote.
In his Voters' Pamphlet statement, Hodges said, "The role of a school board member is to maintain objectivity and make decisions based on accurate data, instead of personal relationships with union leaders, staff, administrators or other board members."
Hodges challenged Bateman, stating he "has let his allegiance to the employee union interfere with his responsibilities as a School Board member."
Attempts to reach Diane Mihocko and Dan Hodges for this story were unsuccessful. Also running for the Eagle Point School Board are Ron Campbell for Position 2 and Curt Sather for Position 5.
As word of the mystery flier circulated through Eagle Point, Hertel received a phone call from resident Joe Scheffler late Wednesday saying he and others were behind the flier. Scheffler told Hertel he was unaware a complaint had been filed or that a PAC needed to be registered with the state, Hertel said.
Scheffler's father, Jerry Scheffler, called the Mail Tribune, stating he was an Eagle Point grandfather and the group's treasurer.
Jerry Scheffler on Thursday was unable to give even a rough estimate of the number of members in the group.
"I'm still gathering that information for the state," he said. "We're a group of ranchers, loggers and hometown folk out in Eagle Point. We made a mistake. We're correcting it."
On Friday, Scheffler said via email that more than 40 families contributed to the flier, which means the state has required they set up a PAC and enter all the contributions.
"I now have the new PAC registered and am continueing (sic) to work with them to get contributions entered," Scheffler wrote.
Hertel said the Schefflers needn't be concerned the state will go after them for voter fraud.
"We're not talking criminal by any means," Hertel said, adding she had also told Luba she would have no standing for a civil complaint against the group as she is not named in the flier.
Bateman said this is not the first time a mystery flier has circulated in the district via a mass mailing.
"It's happened in the past," Bateman said. "Somebody put one out with our school district's logo on it saying it was sponsored by Jackson County Schools. These things happen."
Luba suspects the three candidates are behind the flier. (See correction, below.) She said she confronted Grissom about the flier at this month's School Board meeting, telling him she was going to call election authorities.
Grissom denies knowing anything about the Schefflers, their flier, or that Luba said anything to him about it. But Luba did threaten his campaign that night, Grissom said.
"She said she'd seen corruption," Grissom said. "And that she'd do everything she could to see that I wouldn't get re-elected."
Grissom agrees the board is fiercely split between the two factions.
"It's never been as bad as the past two years," he said.
Grissom blames Bateman's and Mannenbach's support of the union, particularly during last year's strike, as having created the problem.
"I supported them as candidates," Grissom said. "I thought they could be balanced. But their biased voting surprised me."
Bateman said claims he is biased toward the union simply because his wife is a teacher are false. And ironic. Allen Barber, the district's human resources director, also has a wife who is a teacher within the district.
"He does contract negotiations for the district," Bateman said. "But I'm not saying it's a conflict for his wife to work in the district. My wife has spent over 20 years working in the school district. I didn't hire her. I've only been on the board for four years."
Bateman said he's not pro-union. He's anti-spending when it comes to "waste." Bateman voted against an $18,000 salary increase for the district's business manager, and against spending $92,000 on an energy specialist "to tell us to turn the lights off," he said.
"For that amount of money, we could have hired two maintenance workers to walk around and turn them off for us," Bateman said, adding he wants to see more teachers in the classrooms.
Each side claims to be "pro-student." Bateman said the board tends to unanimously agree on purchasing items that will benefit students, such as technology upgrades. But he agreed the board will likely remain divided.
"We have totally different views on things," Bateman said.
Bateman filed for Grissom's seat this election so that voters would have a clear choice between the two, he said. But after Hodges filed for the same seat, Grissom ultimately decided to run against Ralph Meeker.
Luba said she plans on homeschooling her grandchildren.
The district "has nothing to offer us," she said.
Bunny Lincoln, retired Eagle Point city planner and current community association president, said the board's incessant infighting is spreading like poison throughout the community, and giving Eagle Point a black eye.
"It gets weirder by the minute," Lincoln said. "The whole board is about mudslinging. I hope they understand what a negative picture it gives to the whole community."
Lincoln said there are varying degrees of fault to be found on both sides of the board. But the students in this semi-rural district are the ones being disadvantaged by the ongoing dysfunction.
"We are talking about the future of our children," Lincoln said. "I don't understand where this rancor and get-even attitude is coming from. When is somebody going to say enough is enough?"
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified the people Luba suspects are behind the flier.