A local school union was recently investigated for its election and finance policies. The union, Renton Education Association, represents over 1,000 educators at Renton School District, and is funded by membership dues from district salaries.
The Renton Education Association (REA) now faces a policy overhaul, after the investigation from the National Education Association showed years of issues with elections, financial accountability and transparency. The investigation found leadership had concentrated authority to leaders, and away from general union members. Documents obtained by Renton Reporter show some of this predates the acting union president, Cami Kiel.
According to the investigation by National Education Association (NEA), some election issues were heightened during Kiel’s time in leadership, particularly after she faced her first contested election. Some policies REA has followed were in violation of state law, and federal labor laws. Kiel’s time in leadership also featured “serious financial irregularities,” with no itemization or oversight for her $10,000 annually allotted expenses, or the rest of the REA budget.
Kiel declined to comment and referred to Washington Education Association (WEA) spokesperson Rich Wood.
The investigation started after concerned local union members emailed NEA and WEA, Wood said, but he was not sure how long the duration of the investigation was before the findings were issued this fall. Renton Reporter found a social media post from May 2019 that indicated at least one of the complaints was from former REA vice president, and Kiel’s opponent in the 2019 union election, Joe Bento. Bento’s post showed screenshots of an email that he stated in the post was sent to WEA leadership. The Renton Reporter reached out to Bento, who declined to comment and referred to Wood.
WEA is now providing oversight to add the reforms recommended by NEA, Wood said, and making sure the local union implements the reforms successfully to restore power to union members.
“A strong union is about making sure members have a voice, and a say in the decisions being made,” Wood said.
Ultimately the NEA investigators found problems with the democratic procedures and a lack of financial controls, checks and balances in the REA. Some of the rules REA leadership had followed were in violation of the Washington Nonprofit Corporations Act, including the president of the union serving as the chief financial officer. This practice predated Kiel’s time in office, starting sometime between 1995 and 2002, according to the investigation report. Kiel was first elected in 2013.
A 65-page confidential report of the investigation into the REA by NEA, obtained by Renton Reporter, expands on the one-page summary of findings distributed to REA members. The findings come from 18 hours of interviews, over 1,000 pages of documents and hours of REA meeting recordings, according to the NEA report.
The findings, summarized in an one-page report, include:
• Union bylaws designate the president as the chief financial officer— separating these roles helps ensure against misuse or embezzlement of union funds. The president authorizes all of their union expenditures, including $10,000 per year budgeted for the president’s own expenses. Union leadership also removed bylaw references to a budget policy, leaving REA with no financial controls.
• Since 2017, REA elections have had problems with insecure balloting, counting the final votes in secret, “undemocratic restrictions on the ability to campaign,” and a pattern of the union president lacking “transparency to the members” and “hostility.”
• Amendments for the REA constitution and bylaws brought forward by union members have failed to be considered for a vote, but amendments brought forward by REA leadership have been considered.
The longer, confidential report was accessible to all 1,000-plus union members, with one print copy in each district building under the supervision of a building representative. Renton Reporter chose to include information from the confidential report to present the evidence from investigators, and to fill in the gaps from the one-page summary.
The REA is the local union that consists of Renton School District teachers, librarians, counselors, speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, psychologists, nurses and facilitators, also known as certificated staff in schools. The union leadership consists of:
• A Representative Council of 75 members, known as Building Representatives, that is meant to act as the policy-making body of the REA.
• The Executive Board, which includes the president, vice president and seven elected members.
• The president and vice president, who appoint an Elections Committee and a Constitution and Bylaws Committee.
Financial controls scrutinized
The REA bylaws since around 2002 have designated its president as its chief financial officer and executive, but this presumably was not the case for at least 30 years prior. This designation has contributed to Kiel and other presidents authorizing all of REA’s expenses, including their own expenses. Before Kiel was in office, the report states a document that outlined the budget policy from 2005 created written policies that had a “relatively sound set of financial controls,” apart from the president serving as treasurer.
After Kiel became president in 2014 the executive board voted to remove that policy, the report states. In an interview with the NEA, Kiel said they were not able to find that policy anywhere and that they have done the budget process based on what they “know” that the union has done previously. Later Kiel told the NEA that they couldn’t find a copy of the policy, which is why they removed it from the bylaws. The NEA was able to obtain a 2005 version of the policy from Bento.
The union has also long required two signatures on each check, but the REA practices since likely before Kiel’s tenure was to have the second signatory sign blocks of blank checks. Kiel’s former vice president, which was Bento from 2014-2017, routinely signed blocks of 10 to 20 blank checks every month, 3,300 to 6,600 checks in total.
Bento states in the report he stopped doing this after learning it was an improper practice during a WEA training, and the report states this is corroborated in emails between Bento and other members of the Executive Committee. The acting vice president, Cindy Pang-Ching, declined to be interviewed for NEA’s report and therefore answer if this practice has continued, according to the documents.
The NEA report also states Kiel’s tenure had financial irregularities. Kiel’s expenses, which totaled between $8,000 to $10,000 annually, were not itemized in the budget or in monthly budget reports, and Bento told the NEA that as vice president he never had access to monitoring her expenses, although REA bylaws require the vice president to do so.
“Given that President Kiel authorizes virtually all expenditures, including her own, and given further that President Kiel’s expense budget is substantial, this is a grave failure of internal control,” the report states.
The REA’s finances in general have been “opaque” to the governing bodies, according to the report. Both annual and monthly reports are presented under six categories, including “governance,” “training” and “community outreach” with a handful of line items that the report states are “unenlightening” for how money is spent, and this vague reporting has “not been lost on members of the Representative Council,” who have requested more details as recently as June 2019. Kiel’s release time expenditure for the 2018-19 school year included a list of items, without explanation of the amount spent on each item, totaling $161,280, according to the report. Expenses paid for by the REA credit card, which the president uses and allows the administrative assistant at the REA office to use, are vouchered for the whole bill, instead of showing the individual expenditures.
Issues with the election process
The NEA investigation showed voting process problems in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 elections, as well as flaws in the bylaw and constitution amendment processes.
For the last three elections, there were no observers for the ballot counting process. Instead, observers were only there for volunteers tallying the ballots, which the report states is “an invitation to election fraud.” The in-person voting, which spans several days at the nearly 30 district locations union members work at, “failed to provide minimum safeguards to ensure fair elections” and was “legally defective,” according to the report.
In 2017, Kiel faced her first contested election and told her opponent the election rules were lost. When her opponent obtained the election procedures from WEA, Kiel claimed that the document was invalid and suggested a WEA representative “had altered it,” the report states.
In 2018, an election handbook that included rules Kiel and committee appointees created during the 2017 election was adopted a week after the REA began accepting nominations for vice president. The report states there are doubts whether the Executive Board has the authority to adopt policies on REA’s officer elections.
The election handbook included some process changes that helped secure balloting, but, according to the report, it did not enforce that security. The process also calls for disqualification of an entire building of ballots if an envelope is not property sealed and signed by a building representative— a ballot security measure that the report calls “draconian.” Entire buildings’ worth of ballots in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were disqualified with this measure.
In the 2019 election for union president, two buildings’ ballots were considered invalid based on these rules. The report also states the 2018 election procedures had at least seven rules that went against federal law, specifically the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA).
Proposed changes to bylaws brought forward by at least two union members were shut down by the Executive Committee, and Kiel “aided by her committee appointees and allies on the Executive Board” made it “impossible” for bylaw amendments to go to the Representative Council for a vote. Leaders interpreted one of the REA bylaws to mean only members of a “Constitution and Bylaws Committee” could propose any changes. The report states this interpretation was “patently unreasonable.” Kiel also refused to disclose the members of the Constitution and Bylaws Committee, and told others they cannot attend its meetings.
On the other hand, changes proposed by Kiel and other executives were able to go to Representative Council and was taken to a vote that ultimately failed “overwhelmingly,” according to attendees that spoke to NEA. The report states Kiel’s bylaw change request (which would have moved proposals to go to the Constitution and Bylaws Committee through the president before going to Representative Council) showed “the lengths to which REA’s current leadership will go in an attempt to undermine REA’s governing documents and restrict members’ ability to participate in the governing of their union.” Three other instances of bylaw amendments proposed while Kiel has been in office showed “serious irregularities” and the report suggests the changes were “developed in secret” by Kiel’s appointees and may not have ever been brought to Representative Council.
What is being done now
After the investigation, which released findings to REA union members in October, Kiel remains president. On Dec. 3, the REA Representative Council approved amendments to the union’s constitution that will add treasurer and secretary positions to the Executive Board, according to the homepage of the REA website.
Wood said the WEA Executive Board had the option of taking over the REA, known as trusteeship. According to the 2016 constitution and bylaws of WEA, the trusteeship process includes a hearing for the local union, after which the WEA board establishes a trusteeship if at least two-thirds of the members vote yes. The board-appointed trustee then has the ability to conduct affairs, take control of financial operations and remove officers.
Wood said the board chose not to use trusteeship in this case as it is a “dramatic” and “serious” decision. He also said this was a rare situation, and this investigation was the first time he could remember trusteeship being discussed in his time working with WEA, as well as the only investigation he knew of for the almost 400 local unions under WEA.
Instead of the trusteeship process, WEA has appointed someone to oversee all of Kiel’s actions as president since October, and will go through the process of adding some of NEA’s recommended changes through REA union votes. Wood said the timeline for this process is for it to complete in about April or May.
The recommendations that came down from the NEA were emailed to local union members in October. The eight-page document, obtained by Renton Reporter, have improvements related to the problems discussed in the 65-page report.These include:
•Adding a secretary and treasurer to the Executive Board, including making the secretary responsible for recording and having detailed minutes or governing bodies and committees and preserving REA documents and making the treasurer responsible for authorizing any expenses or reimbursements.
•Amending REA bylaws or constitution to make it clear that election or financial practices policies must be approved by representative council and can only be revised by the same council.
•Developing a “comprehensive set of policies governing” REA’s finances, including budgets, audits, credit card usage, reimbursements and check-signing authority.
•Clarifying that REA members can propose amendments to governing documents to the Representative Council, as long as all members of the council receive it two weeks in advance (but allowing for “reasonable” minimum level of support from union members for any proposed change, if council is concerned about getting proposals lacking that support.)
•Creating new procedures for elections for Executive Board, NEA and REA representatives and Representative Council positions, with the help of legal counsel. The procedures must be approved by Representative Council, not by Executive Board. With the new election procedures, REA must “overhaul” the election practices and 2018 Election Handbook, in order to comply with LMRDA.
•Allowing for mail-in or electronic voting. Wood said that REA will be moving to electronic voting.
•Providing a fair opportunity for all candidates to campaign for office, including an LMRDA requirement that unions comply with “all reasonable requests by candidates that the union distribute campaign materials at the candidates’ expense”
The nine-page summary, including a summary of investigation findings and eight pages of recommendations, is available to view below: