On Wednesday, voters in the Wentzville School District (of which I am one) found out they may have unknowingly elected a convicted felon to the school board. Michael Feinstein, one of two Wentzville school board candidates supported by the Wentzville National Education Association (WNEA) and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA), was previously convicted of felony charges in Iowa. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports:
Feinstein pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his use of a credit card to steal about $105,000 from the health foundation he was working for in the early 2000s, news and court records say. He lost the money gambling.
Feinstein served a 38-day sentence in an Iowa prison. He completed his four years of probation.
Allegedly, the WNEA found out about the felony conviction on March 30. On March 31, the union pulled support by issuing a letter to WNEA members (see below).
Apparently the group also removed posts about Feinstein from its Facebook page. However, the WNEA did not alert the public to the issue or to the fact that they dropped support. As voters drove to their polling places, they passed scores of WNEA-approved signs supporting Feinstein. Some claim WNEA representatives were even standing in front of polling places holding these signs.
The election of a convicted felon to the school board brings up many questions. Should Feinstein have disclosed this information sooner? Did the union do its due diligence in vetting the candidate and disclosing the information once they found out about the prior conviction?
While these are important questions, there are some much more basic questions about the role of public-sector unions in elections. To which, this election should sound an alarm.
First, as the Show-Me Institute’s Brittany Wagner has written before, teachers’ unions are a special interest group that can have significant sway in elections. Teachers’ unions may be the sole special interest group active in local school district elections. The Wentzville School District has more than 1,800 employees, roughly half of which are certified teachers. Even in a relatively large district such as Wentzville, this can be more than enough to sway the vote when, as in Tuesday’s election, only a fraction of registered voters bothered to vote. The two candidates endorsed by the WNEA were victorious in the election and received almost the same number of votes. This fact leads to another question: Should we be concerned that when the union sits down to bargain with the school district, there are school board members whom the WNEA helped elect?
Second, dues-paying union members have no say in which political causes their dues support. Would most WNEA members have wanted any portion of their dues to be used to support Feinstein? This election, however, would probably just a drop in the bucket. Teachers’ unions are among the largest political contributors in the country.
This incident illustrates why Missouri should reconsider how we elect school board members and how those members interact with any unions in their districts. For example, should school board elections be in November where turnout is greater? Should collective bargaining negotiations be open to the public, not behind closed doors? Should public-sector unions have to make annual financial filings, just like private-sector unions, so their members and the public can know where union political support is going? Finally, shouldn’t teachers who want to be in the union for professional development and liability insurance purposes have the option before paying any dues to limit their payments to fund only those activities and not the union’s political activity?
These types of reforms may not prevent the election of convicted felons, but they would go a long way to ensuring taxpayers have a seat at the table when it comes to their local schools.