Story last updated at 1:44 p.m. Thursday, April 25, 2002

E-mail scandal hits school district

Officials worry outcome could taint contract talks

Peninsula Clarion staff and Carey James, Homer News
photo: news
Donna Peterson  
An alleged security breach in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's e-mail system is threatening to derail already contentious contract negotiations between the district and unions representing teachers and support workers.

According to school district officials, unauthorized school district employees intercepted messages exchanged among senior administrators and school board members.

Some of the messages were confidential memos dealing with employee contract talks, they said.

District staff are concerned that the confidential information may have been passed on to the union negotiating team, and have warned union representatives that the next round of negotiations, slated for Monday and Tuesday, may be postponed while an investigation into the alleged incidents is conducted.

No caption was contained in the photo file  
Union representatives, however, expressed doubts about the motives of the administration and said they see no reason for a delay in talks. After a meeting Tuesday night, the union negotiators issued a statement saying each of the 10 members had been individually queried and "each denied knowledge of any breach of confidentiality within district bargaining communications."

"I think it's a personnel issue," said teacher's union president Hans Bilben on Tuesday. "They have absolutely no reason to tie it to the (contract negotiations.)"

Bilben said after what he sees as a painfully slow negotiation process with the district thus far, he questions the motives of the district's announcement to possibly delay talks further.

"We have been attempting to bargain in good faith since day one," Bilben said.

But school board member Joe Arness, spokesman for the administration's negotiating team, expressed concern for the integrity of the talks in a letter to union negotiators earlier this week.

Schools Superintendent Donna Peterson announced Monday that in addition to investigating the incidents, district officials have alerted law enforcement agencies, although she declined to specify which ones. The outcome could lead to criminal charges or revocation of professional licenses and could taint the contract talks, Peterson said.

"When we are talking about (the) level of trust here, people are feeling violated and, frankly, stunned," she said.

Peterson said the e-mail problem came to light April 9, when she asked a school board member about a message she had sent late the night before. The recipient denied seeing the message, but Peterson's computer indicated it had been read. At first she assumed a technical problem with the district's system, and she asked the data processing department to check into it.

The data processing staff traced the message and found it had been intercepted. The district's computer experts have been able to trace problems with other messages that appear to have been read by someone other than the addressees.

In a letter released to the public Monday evening, Peterson wrote that the investigation so far has found "an alarming pattern."

She declined to name any of the people involved, saying it is important to protect them at this point. The district is interviewing employees, tracing e-mail messages and reviewing the content of messages that appear to have been intercepted. More than one employee had been placed on paid administrative leave by Tuesday, and others are being questioned. Peterson stressed, however, that leave is an investigative procedure and not an implication of guilt.

The district has never faced a problem like this before, and Peterson said it raises questions about the district's use of e-mail.

The administration will decide later this week whether the sessions scheduled for Monday and Tuesday will take place as scheduled or be postponed. It called for a special closed-door executive session school board meeting Wednesday night to discuss the matter.