Possible security breach in school district e-mail system investigated

Scandal clouds contract talks

Posted: Wednesday, April 24, 2002

An alleged security breach in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's e-mail system is threatening to derail already contentious contract negotiations between the district and unions representing teachers and support workers.

According to school district officials, unauthorized people intercepted messages exchanged among senior administrators and school board members. Some of the messages were confidential memos dealing with employee contract talks, they said, and the next round of negotiations, which are slated for Monday and Tuesday, may be postponed while an investigation into the alleged incidents is conducted.

Union spokespeople, however, expressed doubts about the motives of the administration and said they see no reason for a delay in talks.

School board member Joe Arness, spokesperson for the administration's negotiating team, wrote a letter to the union teams notifying them of the investigation and expressing extreme concern for the integrity of the talks.

In response to Arness' letter, Dave Larson and Buck George, who represent the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, respectively, issued a statement Tuesday evening saying all 10 members of the unions' negotiating team individually denied knowledge of any breach of confidentiality within district communications.

"The team is deeply concerned about any potential breach in confidentiality of the negotiations process," they said in the prepared statement. "The team continues to be committed to good-faith bargaining and intends to be back at the table April 29 and 30, ready to continue the bargaining process."

The school district and unions, which are trying to come to terms on a new contract, remain far apart over basics of salaries and health insurance costs, and the sides have taken a hard line with each other.

Schools Superintendent Donna Peterson announced Monday that in addition to investigating the incidents, district officials have also alerted law enforcement agencies, although she declined to specify which ones. The outcome could lead to criminal charges or revocation of professional licenses and could taint the contract talks, Peterson said.

"When we are talking about level of trust here, people are feeling violated and, frankly, stunned," she said.

Peterson said the problem came to light April 9, when she asked a school board member about a message she had sent late the night before. The recipient denied seeing the message, but Peterson's computer indicated it had been read. At first she assumed a technical problem with the district's system, and she asked the data processing department to check into it.

The data processing staff traced the message and found it had been intercepted. The district's computer experts have been able to trace problems with other messages that appear to have been read by someone other than the addressees.

In a letter released to the public Monday evening, Peterson wrote that the investigation so far has found "an alarming pattern."

She declined to name any of the people involved, saying it is important to protect them at this point. The district is interviewing employees, tracing e-mail messages and reviewing the content of messages that appear to have been intercepted. A few employees have begun to be placed on paid administrative leave, and others may be soon. But Peterson stressed that leave is an investigative procedure and not an implication of guilt.

The district has never faced a problem like this before, and preliminary checks with attorneys and other districts suggest this may be a first, Peterson said.

The administration will decide later this week whether the next negotiating sessions, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, will take place as scheduled or be postponed. It called for a special school board meeting tonight at 8:30 to discuss the matter. The meeting will be a closed-door executive session about negotiations.

Union leaders met Tuesday night and were unavailable for comment.



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