By JULIE E. GREENE
6:39 PM EDT, November 1, 2012
An anonymous letter-writing campaign against Washington County Board of Education President Wayne Ridenour picked up steam this week, days before the Nov. 6 election, with copies of the most recent letter sent to at least one teacher in at least three schools.
Ridenour said Wednesday that since the fall of 2011 he had received three anonymous letters and one postcard.
“I’m upset,” Ridenour said Wednesday. He said he thinks sending the anonymous letters to teachers has “crossed a line.”
In general, the letters have stated that a group is working toward removing Ridenour from the board and from his post as board president. The letters also have alleged that he favors the school system’s administration over teachers and refer to his family members that work for the school system.
The letters are signed “Citizens for Justice.”
The letters and postcard were delivered by the U.S. Postal Service to Ridenour in the school system’s post office box.
The most recent letter was sent to at least one teacher at Bester Elementary School, Smithsburg High School, and Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, The Herald-Mail has confirmed.
The latest letter, which Ridenour said he picked up Wednesday from his mailbox, refers to a Washington County Teachers Association council’s candidate endorsements, which did not include Ridenour.
WCTA President Denise Fry said she became aware of the letters on Wednesday from a teacher who received a copy.
“It’s not something the association would endorse. It’s not how we practice business. I actually find it kind of offensive that WCTA, the organization I represent, is being used this way,” Fry said.
“We may not be supporting Wayne in this campaign, but this is not how I practice politics. It’s not how the organization practices politics,” Fry said.
“If you’re going to put this out, you sign (it). You stand behind what you say,” Fry said.
Ridenour is among three incumbents and two political newcomers running for the four seats up for election on the seven-member school board. The school board election is nonpartisan.
Asked Thursday, the other candidates and board members contacted said they had nothing to do with the anonymous letters being sent to Ridenour, nor did they know who was behind them. All candidates and board members except for Board Vice President Jacqueline Fischer were contacted Thursday. Fischer did not immediately return phone messages.
Most of them took issue with the tactic of sending anonymous letters.
“I think it’s despicable and I think it’s the lowest form of politics,” said board member Justin Hartings, who is running for re-election.
“I think free speech is too important to have it sullied with anonymous, unsigned smears and I would say that about anybody ...,” Hartings said.
Board member Donna Brightman, who is running for re-election, said “It’s an anonymous letter and I don’t give much credibility to anyone that won’t sign their name to something.”
School board candidate Melissa Williams said, “I don’t condone it, for sure. I’m not in favor of doing anything like that anonymously.”
“Personally, I don’t like anonymous opinion letters or attack letters,” school board candidate Travis Poole said. “I think if you’re going to say something, you sign your name to it.”
Board member W. Edward Forrest, whose term ends in December, called the tactic “cowardly.”
If the group behind the letters is worried about something critical to county citizens, they should be straightforward about it, Forrest said.
Forrest said people talk about retaliation if they speak out. But Forrest said that’s ridiculous, that during his tenure on the board that hasn’t occurred.
Board member Karen Harshman said she would never send an anonymous letter.
“That’s not my style. I write letters to the editor when I have something to say or I tell people how I feel,” Harshman said.
Harshman said if the people behind the letter are school system employees or relatives of school system employees, “I am sure there is a fear that has been instilled in them since the last superintendent’s reign that makes them totally insecure about keeping their jobs, if in fact they are working there or if a relative is working there.”
“I felt the same way. I was reluctant to come forward with things that I felt were unacceptable. Because I did not want to change jobs,” said Harshman, a retired teacher.
Board member Paul Bailey called the anonymous letter campaign “disgraceful.”
“I just think it’s terrible that someone would stoop that low,” Bailey said.
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