Salmon district under investigation for election law complaints

SALMON — Authorities are investigating claims that the Salmon School District violated Idaho election law by using taxpayer dollars to solicit support for a bond issue.

Lemhi County Sheriff Steve Penner told Idaho Education News Friday that his office is in the “early phase” of investigating whether or not Salmon trustees used public funds to encourage voters to pass a $25.6 million bond issue. The measure failed Tuesday.

Penner said patrons outlined complaints about the district to Lemhi County Prosecuting Attorney Bruce Withers. Withers recused himself from the investigation but turned the complaints over to the Jefferson County Prosecutor’s office.

One complaint came from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank and lobbying group.

In a letter obtained by EdNews, Freedom Foundation policy analyst Lindsay Atkinson said Salmon trustees possibly violated Idaho’s Public Integrity in Elections Act, which prohibits “public funds, resources or property” from being used “to advocate for or against a candidate or ballot measure.”

Atkinson believes the district used public dollars to advocate for a “yes” vote based on communications and contracts with Rich Bauscher of The Facility Planners, which provides consulting services to multiple Idaho districts trying to pass bond issues.

Bauscher is the former superintendent for the Middleton School District. During the past year, Salmon entered into three contracts with Bauscher.

Bauscher’s July 2018 contract with Salmon, also obtained by EdNews, outlines the scope of work relating to the bond issue, including a $9,000 consulting fee. The contract stipulated that Bauscher’s final fee would be reduced if the measure failed. The contract also said Bauscher would organize an “ad hoc” citizens committee and present overall bond election concepts and strategies.

Salmon Superintendent Chris Born signed the contract on Sep. 10.

Voters have rejected Salmon district bond issues nine times in recent years.

Jefferson County Deputy Prosecutor Mike Winchester said his office is awaiting a report from Penner’s office to determine whether or not to file charges.

The failed bond issue would have funded the construction of an elementary and middle school to house 650 students. Fifty-eight percent of local voters supported the measure, which needed a two-thirds supermajority of votes to pass.

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