GFPS asks county to remove election duties from clerk and recorder’s office

In early September, the Great Falls Public Schools district sent a letter to Cascade County Commissioners asking that they transfer the duties of the election office from the Clerk and Recorders office to the commission office.

“This request is made due to the numerous issues and concerns that have arisen in recent elections, particularly the Great Falls Public Schools trustee election held in May of 2023,” according to the letter.

The letter was signed by Superintendent Tom Moore, GFPS business operations manager Brian Patrick and chairman of the school board Gordon Johnson.

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Moore told the board during their Sept. 25 meeting that the letter was the culmination of multiple requests for information that went unanswered.

Moore said that in May, Patrick asked the elections office to review and amend the current contract between GFPS and the elections office. Moore said that from the end of May to the end of August, despite multiple attempts from Patrick for a response, there was no communication from Sandra Merchant, the county clerk and recorder.

Patrick notified Moore in late August of the lack of response. Moore said he called the elections office and got a response within two days, but that they still had 10 to 15 questions that had gone unanswered pertaining to their upcoming school board election in May 2024.

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The district’s letter stated one of its most pressing issues was the “breakdown in communication” between Merchant and GFPS staff.

Moore said the district hadn’t had an issue communicating with the elections office for more than a decade until this year.

In the letter, the district said the lack of communication hindered its ability to ensure a fair and efficient election process, leading to the need to involve legal counsel, “leading to an unnecessary escalation of costs,” exceeding $17,350.

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“Our proposal for a mail ballot election was denied, citing prohibitive costs. It is important to note that the district bears the entire expense of the election. This denial not only disregarded the district’s financial obligations, but also did not follow the request of the trustees who support a mail ballot election because it is cost efficient and allows the most voters the opportunity to receive a ballot and vote in the election. In 2008, the district was asked by the county to implement the mail ballot process to save money. School elections have been held via mail ballot since that date. The district believes in accessibility and participation in our school elections,” according to the district’s letter.

The district’s letter cites other issues during the May school board election, including that ballots weren’t available at the polling site when polls opened and that absentee ballots weren’t sent to all eligible voters.

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“Given these multiple instances of mismanagement and inefficiency, Great Falls Public Schools believes that transferring the responsibilities of the elections office to the Cascade County Commissioners would ensure greater accountability, transparency and competence in the administration of elections. We are confident that the County Commissioners would prioritize effective communication, collaboration and fair practices, which are essential to a functioning democracy,” GFPS officials wrote in their letter.

During their Sept. 25 meeting, Gordon Johnson, board chair, said they’d just received a response from the county commissioners on Monday.

Johnson read the letter aloud during the meeting.

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The letter was addressed to “gentlemen,” despite four of the seven school board members being women, as school board member Kim Skornogoski pointed out.

County commissioners wrote that they’d review the GFPS letter with Merchant and that any decision to transfer election duties would require thorough examination.

In their letter, commissioners said they couldn’t offer an opinion at this time on the question of moving election duties from the clerk’s office to the commission office.

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Commissioners suggested in their letter that GFPS could withdraw their current contract with the county elections office and run their elections themselves, as allowed under state law.

In November 2022, County Commissioner Joe Briggs had suggested moving election duties from the clerk’s office under the commission and making it a county department with a hired department head.

Paige Turoski, GFPS board member, said she never got the email from Moore about the letter that was sent to county commissioners.

She said that if she had received the email, she would have preferred that it had been brought before the board for consideration before being sent.

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“I feel that we made a misstep here by not bringing this letter before the board,” she said during the Sept. 25 board meeting.

Turoski said she only found out about the letter on Sept. 22.

She said she understands that under the law, the county commission could move election duties from the clerk’s office but that the voters understood the election duties to be under that office when they elected Merchant.

Turoski said they owe it to the voters to make things such as the letter available to the public.

She said she thinks the district “walked the line pretty hard” on open meetings and that the lack of response to Moore’s email about the letter from trustees was taken as consent.

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GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore said that he had emailed the board Sunday night taking responsibility for missing Turoski on the board email about the letter sent to commissioners regarding elections.

Moore said he discovered that the group email he had for board communication from his office didn’t include Turoski, meaning she hadn’t been receiving quite a bit of communication from his office.

Turoski was elected to the school board in May 2022.

He said he felt regretful about that and apologized to her during the Sept. 25 meeting, saying, “I blew it. This particular situation as volatile as it is, hurts even worse.”

Moore said that he and Patrick drafted the letter earlier this month after not receiving a response from Merchant’s office, ran it by Gordon as board chair and consulted their legal counsel.