State superintendent Sherri Ybarra reprimanded her community relations director Thursday morning for seeking campaign support in the name of the State Department of Education, her spokesman said.
SDE community relations director Chuck Zimmerly solicited campaign support for Ybarra from dozens of school administrators.
“(Ybarra) made it very clear to (Zimmerly) in no uncertain terms that any campaigning is absolutely forbidden in any of our official capacities or on state property or using state resources,” said SDE spokesman Dan Goicoechea. “Mr. Zimmerly was very apologetic.”
Zimmerly sent the email just three hours after Ybarra told Idaho EdNews that she had not launched her re-election campaign and would not be updating her campaign website until she makes a formal announcement.
Zimmerly sent multiple emails to groups of superintendents from his Idaho State University account at about 6:40 p.m.
“Good evening,” Zimmerly wrote in the email, which is published below this article. “The superintendent is in the process of up dating (sic) her campaign web page and is asking if any of you, who feel so inclined, if she might use your name on her web page supporting her and the work she has done over the last several years as superintendent. There are no other obligtions (sic) or tasks required. If you are ok with her using your name please just respond back to me asap with your ok.”
In large, red letters he prominently identified himself as the community relations officer from the State Department of Education, which provides day-to-day support and oversight of the school districts and superintendents who Zimmerly requested the political favor of.
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Recipients of the emails, which Idaho EdNews obtained from four sources, included Ybarra’s political rivals — Andy Grover, Ybarra’s 2014 GOP rival, and Wilder Superintendent Jeff Dillon, who is running for state superintendent in 2018.
Neither Grover nor Dillon supplied EdNews with Zimmerly’s email.
Zimmerly sent an apology email Thursday evening to superintendents for “inadvertantly (sic) using my ISU email account to query your support for Superintendent Ybarra and the work she is leading.”
On Wednesday, Ybarra stressed she has not launched her re-election campaign or updated an outdated and misleading campaign website because she is focusing on her duties as schools chief by finalizing her public school budget request and the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
“I’m focusing on kids and the job at hand now,” Ybarra said Wednesday, hours before Zimmerly sent his email. “I’m seeking re-election and the plan is to make a formal announcement, and then work on the website. So there will be more information forthcoming on that.”
Ybarra said she still intends to seek re-election. When she does launch her campaign, she will square off against Dillon in the May 2018 GOP primary.
Goicoechea said a school superintendent alerted Ybarra’s communications director, Allison Westfall, about Zimmerly’s email at 7:30 a.m. Thursday. Westfall informed Ybarra, and Ybarra immediately called Zimmerly and told him he was wrong.
“Superintendent Ybarra called Chuck and explained to him ‘you don’t do that, you can’t do that’ and told him to correct it,” Goicoechea said.
Zimmerly, who is an SDE contractor and appears near the top of Ybarra’s organizational chart and leadership team, sent the email from an ISU email address. An ISU human resources official on Thursday said Zimmerly is a retired ISU employee, and that retirees retain use of their university email addresses. Zimmerly previously served as interim director of ISU’s Intermountain Center for Education Excellence.
Zimmerly is one of Ybarra’s oldest political allies. He served on Ybarra’s 2014 campaign and transition teams, and Ybarra made him one of her early hires upon taking office in 2015. Ybarra previously explained that Zimmerly’s main role would be to communicate and build relationships with school districts and to provide policy guidance to district officials and employees.
During a taped interview with Idaho EdNews in December 2015, Ybarra first announced her intention to seek re-election in 2018. At that time, Ybarra spoke of her love for the job and pledged to “be very open and honest with the public and continue to keep them informed as well about plans for the future.”
Goicoechea said Ybarra is making sure that a similar problem won’t happen again.
In addition to reprimanding Zimmerly, SDE officials are notifying staffers of the policy and insisting that campaign questions coming into the office be directed to Ybarra.
SDE officials also notified a state deputy attorney general about the incident, Goicoechea said.
Idaho law prohibits classified employees of a state agency from using “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election to or nomination for office, or affecting the result thereof.” That same section of law also prohibits state classified employees from “directly of indirectly coerce, attempt to coerce, command, or direct any other such officer or employee to pay, lend, or contribute any part of his salary or compensation or anything else of value to any party, committee, organization, agency, or person for political purposes.”
Zimmerly is a contract employee but has a SDE email address.