(Correction: The Observer has corrected a mistake in the description of how the school district handles record requests involving a complaint against an employee. She apologizes for this error.)
A school board candidate threatened the district he is running to lead with a class-action lawsuit over teachers’ personal Facebook posts. Personal posts are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech guarantee.
A personal clash over a teacher’s criticism appears to have become a driving force for Misipati Semi Bird’s campaign for the Richland School District board, leading him to consider retaining a private lawyer to file a class-action lawsuit against the agency even as he runs to lead it, records show.
The records provide previously undisclosed details about why Bird pulled his daughter from Richland High School based on what he termed a “disrespectful” conversation with the Richland High School principal about a music teacher’s Facebook posts that included a laughing emoji apparently referring to Bird.
Bird blamed the district for the candidate’s decision to pull his daughter, which made her “heart-broken” and cry, the records show. And he vowed to make major changes to the district and board so “no other children suffer.”
“She cried when I told her that she was not going to Richland High School,” he wrote in a June 5 email to Richland School Board Director Kari Williams. “My baby cried because of how poorly our school district is ran (sic). I will not stand by and allow this.”
“I WILL be elected, and I WILL bring about SWEEPING change to the board and district, so that no other children suffer at the hands of this administration.”
Bird says if he wins he will re-enroll his daughter in the district because a publicly elected position on the school board would enable him to protect against “threats” to his daughter’s public school experience from teachers who don’t like Bird’s political views.
The records additionally show that Bird, who has promised to be open and transparent with the public, sought to file a complaint against Richland School Board Director Jill Oldson for asking him to see the document detailing his military record.
Bird has described himself as an ex-U.S. Army Green Beret, ex-U.S. Marine with 23 years of military service, and also as an ex-police officer. His Linkedin page details 11 years spent in the Army, does not detail his time in the Marines, and does not refer to time spent as a police officer.
The story of Bird’s interaction with various district officials sheds further light on the communication style and leadership skills of Bird, who also describes himself as a “behavioral scientist” and an expert in human resources and personnel matters.
Last month, based on questions circulating in the community, the Observer disclosed records showing that Bird had reacted to a near-collision while driving by trying to pull over the other driver, then blasting a perceived lack of response from the Richland Police and vowing to arm himself.
Later, in a complaint about noise near his house, he asked if the Richland Police were “giving him the finger” and accused a dispatcher of “lying” to him that an officer had responded to the area. “I don’t see an officer there, so is he driving an invisible car?” he said. “Where the hell is it?”A look at Semi Bird’s interactions with dispatchers, police –
Bird did not respond to emails from the Observer sent on Sept. 28 and Oct. 14 asking him about his interactions with dispatchers and police and with district officials.
Bird filed to run for school board on May 17, 2021. The board sets policy for the district leadership and oversees a $193 million budget, while for the most part leaving administration and personnel matters to Superintendent Shelley Redinger.
On June 1, 2021, Bird emailed Richland High School Principal Tim Praino to complain about “nasty and harassing posts” on his campaign Facebook page posted by a music teacher, Jason Rose. Bird said he supports “free speech,” but given that his daughter was interested in music, Bird said in the email that he wanted to know what the school would do “to protect my child from discrimination or retaliation in this situation.”
Praino, following the RSC policy on complaints, called Bird the next morning to set up a meeting between Bird, Rose and himself.
That night Bird wrote the principal complaining about the tone of the conversation, saying the principal’s defense of the teacher had “disrespected” Bird.
It’s unclear whether the principal felt Rose’s personal social media activity conducted on his personal time violated school policies that apply to employees while they are representing the district and working on district business.
Frank D. LoMonte, J.D. professor and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information in the University of Florida Department of Journalism and Communication, has researched case law on public employees’ First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. He told the Observer that government employers’ ability to restrict their employees’ freedom of speech is limited.
“Teachers do not forfeit their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment,” said LoMonte.“The Supreme Court has said several times that we need the insider perspective of public employees to tell us about their areas of expertise, so there is recognized societal value in hearing what teachers think about school board races.”
Class action threat
The day after the phone call with the principal, Bird rejected his invitation to meet with the principal and the teacher. Over the next few days, he threatened a class-action lawsuit, called for firing Richland School District (RSD) Superintendent Shelley Redinger, and pulled his 14-year-old daughter from public school, causing her to be “heart-broken” and cry.
“My daughter is heart broken, because for years she was looking forward to becoming a Richland Bomber,” Bird wrote in a June 2 email to the principal. But Bird said that he didn’t think the school would be a safe place for his child. “As parents, we cannot in good conscious (sic) expose our child to a potential threat.”
On June 5, 2021, Bird complained in an email to School Board Director Kari Williams, “I have NO CONFIDENCE in the Superintendent’s ability to lead and I feel that she needs to be replaced ASAP.”
To the email, Bird attached 16 screenshots that in various correspondence he has described as “harassing, nasty, attacking and toxic.”
Of the teacher’s posts cited in the email, five comments can be identified as having appeared on Bird’s candidate Facebook page.
*Kids absolutely see race.
*We’ve already got that leadership.”
*Trotting out an argument and insinuating that this thing you’re disingenuously assuming isn’t happening isn’t impressive.
*Please don’t be my boss
*a laughing emoji
Bird also complained that the teacher referred to Bird as an “atrocious candidate” on the teacher’s own personal Facebook page.
On June 6 Bird sent an email to District Counsel Galt Pettett. Bird wrote, “I am in an exploratory phase of filing a class action lawsuit against the RSD regarding practices of enabling, emboldening, and ignoring behaviors which may be deemed inappropriate and in violation of the RSD’s code of ethics and social media guidelines (attached).”
On the Personnel page he sent Galt, under the heading “General Staff Responsibility and Conduct” Bird drew a red arrow to a rule that applies to employees “whenever engaged in District business or acting on behalf of the District:”
When on RSD business, “Employees are expected to maintain courteous and respectful relationships with students, parents/guardians, school patrons, contractors, vendors, sales persons and colleagues.”
Bird also attached the Richland School District’s “Social Media Guidelines.” The guideline says, “Free speech protects educators who want to participate in social media, but the laws and courts have ruled that schools can discipline teachers if their speech, including online postings,disrupts school operations.”
On June 19 Bird sent an email complaining about Oldson, the board member who had asked him for a copy of his military record, to Tricia Lubach, Director of Leadership Development at the Washington School District Directors’ Association (WSDDA) saying “A sitting official is attacking an official state candidate with the implied threat of besmirching my reputation and thus effecting (sic) a public election.”
In a conversation with the Observer, Lubach said that she did not respond to the email because “WSDDA supports and educates and does not provide oversight.”
“I’m shocked,” Oldson said when told of the complaint.“I’m surprised that he thinks asking to see his military record is an attempt to besmirch him. I vet all the candidates so I will know who to vote for. Other people ask me for information on candidates as well.”
In the email Bird wrote to Lubach at the WSSDA, he also says that Oldson “initiated contact” to “chastise me” for disclosing his issue with the teacher and the principal.
Oldson disputed that characterization. She said, “We chatted and he said he had a problem with a teacher at Richland High School.” She said she told him that she would check the policies and get back to him. Before she had a chance to do that, he posted about the issue on his Facebook page.
“Alternate method of resolution”
It’s unclear what happened to Bird’s complaints about Praino and Rose.
The Observer asked for the records of the complaint and Galt, district counsel, responded in an Oct. 4 email, “…I will need to put both Mr. Praino and Mr. Rose on notice of your request. Part of this notice is to allow the employees time to seek an injunction directing the District not to comply with your request.”
But based on other documents, it appears that the result of an investigation did not go Bird’s way.
On August 16, Tony Howard, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources provided Bird with the response to his complaint against the principal. In the email he told Bird he was happy to discuss it further, and had copied a superior “should you choose to appeal my decision.”
Bird’s response: “I appreciate the difficulty in finding resolution in a ‘he said, he said’ type scenario such as this. I also understand the school district will ‘protect its own’ in these situations, based on my observations of how the school district is currently ran (sic).”
He closed by saying that he didn’t expect the school district to do anything about the teacher’s behavior “so I will consider this case closed as well.”
Bird described the school district’s response to his complaint differently in a meeting with the Tri City Herald on Oct. 1, “I’m not going to compromise anybody in the school district by telling you what they said at the most senior level, but they said, what I sent them was wrong, and will be addressed. It was wrong, and it will be addressed.”
On September 14, 2021, Bird emailed Pettett, “I’m working on getting all of my paperwork together for an alternate method of resolution regarding my formal complaint….” He asked Pettett to provide him with the details of the investigation.
Bird did not specify what method he was considering to “resolve” the situation. In an email to Bird, the Observer asked whether he is still exploring filing a class action lawsuit. He did not respond.
After the Observer filed a request with the district for public records, Bird posted a fundraising video saying he’d been “targeted” by the request. In another fundraising video on Oct. 6, he said all the principal needed to do was assure him his daughter would face no repercussions for her father’s statements.
He said that electing him would allow him to return his daughter to the district.
“I believe that if I’m on the board, I will be in a better position to ensure that my child would not get the fallout because of her dad deciding to serve the community.”
(Disclosure: The Observer is a member of the board of the National Women’s Political Caucus — WA. The caucus endorsed Bird’s opponent, Elizabeth Vann Clark, and contributed $100 to her campaign.