School Board Secretary Ryan Rydstrom, seated at left, and School Board members David Tominsky and Nancy Humbles listen to the school district’s legal counsel during a special school board meeting Sept. 28, 2023, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

By Cindy Hadish/Homegrown Iowan

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board addressed a complaint Sept. 28, filed against the Cedar Rapids Community School District, on the same day the school district was presented with a challenge to its bond referendum petitions and the School Board heard two objections to a candidate’s petitions.

Rachel Happel, a resident of the district, filed a formal complaint that pointed out the tactics the school district was using to get the district’s bond issue on the ballot, including sending emails from the district to recruit volunteers, Facebook posts and other recruitment methods.

Watch the Ethics Board hearing.

In addition to the formal complaint, “we have heard from a handful of people in Cedar Rapids who are concerned,” Board Executive Director Zach Goodrich said.

“It’s using public resources to advocate for placing an issue on the ballot,” Ethics Board Chairman James Albert said.

“That’s exactly why I would not do it, if I were them,” Goodrich said, adding that he advised the school district’s attorney against using the tactics. “They were insistent. They didn’t want to stop doing this.”

Because the bond issue had not yet been placed on the ballot, the district did not technically violate the law, he said, but the ethics board members asked that a letter be sent to the Cedar Rapids school district to express their concern.

Goodrich compared it to the gift law section of Iowa code for government officials.

“Even if it’s just the appearance of impropriety, it still undermines the public’s trust in government, so that is absolutely something we could express to the school district,” he said, “that the law may not be violated, but the spirit of the law is still very important.”

The complaint was dismissed, but Albert asked for further legal analysis, “to see what options we might have when it comes so close, but doesn’t get across the line.” Goodrich said a report would be ready for the next meeting, in November.

On the same day, a group of school district residents presented School Board Secretary Ryan Rydstrom with a formal challenge to the district’s $220 million school bond petitions.

The group found, of the 7,624 signatures collected, 1,333 were invalid, leaving only 6,291 entries; short of the 6,319 needed to put the measure on the ballot.

They cited the following reasons: No house number; no street address; no city/state/zip code, as required on the form; out of district addresses; duplicates; and invalid addresses.

Additionally, the group found instances of “curing,” when a third party attempted to make the entry qualify; dittos and arrows; a date missing at the beginning or end of a page, and future dates.

The group did not exclude entries that were missing dates in the middle of the page, even though it was technically against the requirements, which impacted another 247 entries.

A review panel consisting of Rydstrom, School Board President David Tominsky and a third board member will review the challenges.

That same type of internal review also was held Sept. 28, as two challenges were heard to the school board candidacy of Kaitlin Byers, who submitted nomination petitions for District 4, a seat held by Dexter Merschbrock.

Kasondra Tosino, a resident of the district, cited three deficiencies in the nomination papers, including failing to include the office sought on the space provided on the form; adding “CRSD District 4” in her husband Craig Byers’ handwriting, when his wife was traveling outside of the United States — “when there was no evidence that language was present” at the time petitions were signed — and placing that information outside of the candidate information box. Further, the use of CRSD District 4 fails to accurately identify the office sought by the candidate, with no provision in Iowa Code 45.5 for the use of initials, and “CRSD” not commonly used to refer to the Cedar Rapids Community School District, the objection stated.

A second objection was made to the same candidacy by Stacie Johnson, who is running for the District 1 School Board seat currently held by Tominsky.

Johnson noted that she was waiting to turn in her candidacy paperwork when Rydstrom was meeting with Kaitlyn Byers’ husband, with the door left open. “This objection is being brought forth in the spirit of fairness, and the fact every candidate and their corresponding paperwork should be treated equally,” Johnson’s objection stated.

Rydstrom had rejected Johnson’s paperwork the previous day, for similar reasons as the objections made to Byers’ paperwork. At the Sept. 28 meeting, Rydstrom denied rejecting Johnson’s paperwork. (The hearing was not conducted under oath.)

Johnson did not resubmit the rejected paperwork, but collected enough signatures that night and the following morning to qualify for the ballot, and had consulted an official at the Linn County Auditor’s Office, who informed her that her original petitions should have been accepted.

She did not hear back from Rydstrom, who also had been in contact with the auditor’s office. “Had I not started over in collecting petition signatures, after mine were initially rejected, I would not be a candidate for CRCSD, Director District 1. As opposed to Kaitlyn Marie Byers petitions, given the dates, it is obvious that new signatures were not gathered after her original paperwork was initially rejected.”

Johnson questioned why the School District did not contact the foreign notary public, where Byers had her paperwork notarized, to determine if the affidavit had been altered, with Byers’ name in the affidavit box.

“According to Iowa and Portugal law, an affidavit cannot be manipulated after the notary has notarized the paperwork,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson said she wanted to attend the hearing, but was given less than 24 hours notice and was unable to rearrange her work schedule. Byers was present at the meeting, which began at 3 p.m.

In addition to Rydstrom and Tominsky, Board Member Nancy Humbles was selected to serve on the election objection committee.

The three members rejected both objections, saying the forms were “substantially” in line with the form, allowing Byers to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot.

More: See the petition signatures that the CRCSD board refused to post.