Donald Cook. COURTESY PHOTO, Kent School District

Donald Cook. COURTESY PHOTO, Kent School District

Cook accuses fellow Kent School Board members of improper actions

Claims they made decisions during private executive sessions that should be made in public

New Kent School District board member Donald Cook has accused three fellow directors of “doing the public’s work in private” during executive sessions, which are closed to the public.

Cook made the accusations during the Feb. 14 regular board meeting that once again demonstrated a clear 3-2 split among the five directors, with Cook and fellow new board member Andy Song in the minority against returning directors Meghin Margel, Tim Clark and Awale Farah.

Cook said he believes the following violations have occurred:

• There have been multiple improperly noticed executive sessions.

• The superintendent and three board directors tried to reach consensus on a resolution, prior to providing this information to the public as is required.

• The full board, at the direction of the superintendent, have potentially been doing the public’s work in private. A full investigation is called for with external legal counsel chosen and appointed by our board of directors.

• An unfair labor practice was committed by our board president during one of our meetings.

The voters of the Kent School District elected me, Cook said about his win over Leslie Hamada in the November 2023 election, and he wants to serve those voters.

“What has been occurring, in my opinion, is an attempt to silence the voice of over 100,000 voters in the Kent School District boundaries,” Cook said.

Cook asked the board to pay for his legal fees in his fight against what he claims are improper actions during executive sessions.

“I make a privileged motion to discuss and vote on reimbursement for legal fees I have incurred over the last three weeks due to potentially illegal/improper actions,” Cooke said. “I believe these actions to have been directed by the superintendent (Israel Vela) and supported by the three board members (Margel, Clark and Farah) in leadership positions on the Kent School District Board.”

Prior to voting on that motion, Song and Cook attempted to get the board to approve a motion to waive attorney-client privilege so that certain actions taken during executive session could be discussed, including possible action against Cook.

“This is absolutely inappropriate,” Clark said in response to the motion.

Paul Brachvogel, attorney for the Kent School District, then told the board it needed to be cautious about waving attorney-client privilege without certain parameters.

Song replied the parameters are to share information about whether the school district hired legal counsel for action against Cook.

“That could open the district to risk,” said Margel, the board president who runs the meetings. “It’s our responsibility to make sure to taxpayers we are not unnecessarily exposing privilege.”

Song replied to Margel’s comment that it’s the board’s duties to disclose to the public the hiring of a law firm.

“If the district is hiring counsel that’s direct involvement of the community and taxpayers who want to know why the district is spending money on an attorney,” Song said.

That reasoning didn’t go over well with Clark.

”I am troubled by that,” Clark said. “The process of how a board does its business, there are procedures and policies in place and you are sidestepping all of that.”

Cook replied to Clark.

“What it allows us in executive session is narrow in scope,” Cook said. “Everything else is in public. If it (actions, decisions) happens in executive session it’s improper or illegal and required to bring to the public.”

According to state opening meeting laws provided by the Washington State School Directors Association, school boards are allowed to meet in executive sessions about certain matters, such as to discuss litigation or potential litigation; to review the performance of a public employee; to evaluate complaints against an employee; and real estate acquisitions.

Any action on most of those items, however, must be voted on in public.

The motion to waive attorney-client privilege for potential information about the district hiring counsel involving Cook failed 3-2 with Clark, Margel and Farah voting against it.

Clark, Margel and Farah also were against the motion by Cook to have the district pay for his legal fees for the attorney he hired in response to the district’s actions.

“It’s absolutely crazy as a taxpayer we should not be paying a private person who went out to get legal help,” Farah said. “We are not in the business to pay for legal fees, because director Cook is trying to create an atmosphere to speak to this issue. ...I don’t understand how much can this district take of this kind of toxic environment.”

Margel agreed with Farah and questioned the accusations by Cook.

“It is not the position of the board or Kent School District to disprove and pay someone to disprove somebody’s beliefs as wild or not wild that they may be,” Margel said. “It’s not our responsibility to pay for that.”

Farah also denied the accusations by Cook.

“We decided to serve this role, we decided to be the community voice,” Farah said. “I am always appalled when a director wants to bring their own personal agenda. They think they can bully you to accept their way of governing.

“We have rules to follow. There is always the ability to make sure we are making decisions according to what is legal and right for the community. We cannot have individual board directors get elected and bring their own personal agenda and come on and say their own facts. They are entitled to their own opinion, not their own facts.”

Farah later added another shot at Cook.

“I am ashamed to be on this dais and have to serve with people who bring their own personal agenda,” Farah said.

Song supported Cook, and said he wanted to know if a director had been mistreated.

“All I’ve heard is lectures from other board members,” Song said

Clark chimed in.

“Requesting public funds to run a private agenda is grossly inappropriate,” Clark said.

Song replied that the board needs to “have a full investigation about what is going on,” and that Cook should be allowed to speak about what caused him to hire an attorney.

“I want the opportunity for director Cook to share,” Song said. “There is nothing wrong with open dialogue. If I felt a board member was wronged, I support that board member to find out why they are in this position to bring it to the dais.”

Margel didn’t want to go to the reasons.

“I’m reluctant because discussions during executive session are not for public comment,” she said.

Cook said that’s why he wanted the board to remove attorney-client privilege so specifics from the executive session could be discussed.

After all of that talk, the board voted 3-2 to turn down the motion to pay for Cook’s legal fees. Margel, Clark and Farah voted against the motion. Cook and Song voted for it.


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