A state legislative candidate received an apology from the Puyallup School District this week after what she called a “disturbing and awkward” experience at her alma mater.
Melanie Stambaugh, a Republican running for a House seat in the 25th Legislative District, was invited to speak Monday to students at Emerald Ridge High School about her business experience and the transition from high school to college.
The 24-year-old Emerald Ridge graduate and former Daffodil Festival queen was asked to speak to kids in the school’s AVID classes, which focus on college readiness.
Stambaugh said she was interrupted midway through the second of three presentations and escorted off campus after a union representative notified administrators that her presence on campus violated district policy.
“We apologize to Melanie Stambaugh for the unwelcoming behavior demonstrated at Emerald Ridge High School earlier this week,” according to the district’s statement. “While sharing her perspective as a small business owner and successful graduate of Emerald Ridge she was asked to cease her comments and leave the building because of a perceived conflict of interest and conflict with school board policy 4400.”
That policy states: “The district, as part of its mission to educate and instill civic virtue, will assure that public facilities are not be used to assist in any candidate’s campaign or to support or oppose any ballot measure,” among other rules related to school-specific measures.
Brian Fox, district spokesman, confirmed that a union representative who was concerned about the policy violation notified building administration.
Neither the Puyallup Education Association or the school district would identify the union representative, and Fox said “no one individual is being blamed for this situation.”
It was unfortunate that staff realized the mistake after Stambaugh had already arrived at the school, he said.
“We messed up,” Fox said. “We were wrong in inviting her in the first place.”
Stambaugh told The News Tribune that she understands and agrees with the district’s intention to keep politics out of schools. But, she said, officials should fully understand their policies and properly enforce them.
“I was very cognizant to keep separation between politics and the message I wanted to share with the students,” she said.
Conner Edwards, who has met Stambaugh once before, said he thinks the Puyallup School District is being hypocritical. Edwards follows the candidate on Facebook, and was angry when he read a post about Monday’s incident.
In an email to Superintendent Tim Yeomans, the Olympia resident expressed frustration with the union’s role in schools. He disagreed with the district’s interpretation of their policy regarding candidate visits.
“The audience Melanie was speaking to was not of voting age, and the presentation was not of a political nature,” he wrote, “nor was it being used to further a political campaign or agenda.”
Edwards told The News Tribune that the Washington Education Association, which endorses Stambaugh’s Democratic opponent Dawn Morrell, has an “enormous amount of influence.” He believes that influence played a role in Stambaugh’s treatment by the district.
“It’s just politics,” Edwards said. “The teacher’s union is incredibly political.”
Karen McNamara, president of the Puyallup Education Association, strongly disagreed.
She said Monday’s incident was not politically driven, and any concerns about how the issue was handled should be brought up with the school district.
“This is not a union issue,” she said, adding that her organization supports candidates from all political parties. “We’re supporting district policy.”
Even if the content of Stambaugh’s presentation wasn’t political in nature, McNamara said, it still broke school district rules to allow her in the building.
“I think it’s vital that political candidates don’t come into our schools,” she said. Schools should teach students about the political process not promote partisanship, she added.
Morrell, Stambaugh’s election oppponent, said Yeomans apologized to her about the “breach in policy.” She denounced accusations from Stambaugh’s supporters that union politics were used against the Republican.
“It was a very clear rule,” Morrell said. “I wouldn’t break it, she shouldn’t have broken it. I shouldn’t be blamed that she broke the rule.”
Morrell added that backlash over the incident is exactly why the school district keeps candidates out of schools during elections, to eliminate any perception of “impropriety.”
Stambaugh said she wishes the union representative who tipped off staff about the policy would have listened to her presentation. If the person had done so, she said, there wouldn’t have been a problem.
The incident may have been sparked by both confusion and politics, Stambaugh said, but it was unfortunate no matter the cause.
“The students are there for stability and mentorship,” she said. “It was disturbing and awkward for everyone involved.”