When voters in Winona, MN go to the polls in November, they won’t just be voting for a new President, they’ll also be voting on a referendum that would raise property taxes by $1 million annually in a bid to fund new technology initiatives at the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS).
But while all tax increases come with controversy, this one found a new point of contention with allegations that portions of the plan and a letter sent in support of it were plagiarized from other sources.
The allegations were first made by WAPS school board chair Ben Baratto who, during a school board meeting, said to West, "I've been made aware of several examples that are obvious cases of plagiarism…. This is an obvious case of plagiarism, not just forgetting to add citations to this plan. I would hope the board would look into this and ensure that nothing like this happens again."
The allegations were picked up by the Winona Post, who highlighted two key areas of dispute:
Multiple sections from the plan itself, totalling almost 700 words, reportedly pulled from a Waltham Public Schools’ technology initiative that was launched in 2014.
A 127-word quote directly attributed to West that was used in the district newsletter to promote the plan. That was allegedly pulled from Emily Wilson, who crafted a 2013 statement for Calvin Christian School.
West denied any intentional plagiarism and said that he would revisit the plan and add citations. He went on to say that “I take pride in citing my sources. I usually have other people help me write documents when I’m going to put it out to the community and we make sure that we’re citing. However, I’m not embarrassed. It’s not done maliciously. It wasn’t done intentionally. I –– I’ve got to tell you, I’m extremely upset. This feels like it’s a witch hunt.”
This was an opinion echoed the next day by the Winona Daily News who, the very next day, published their evaluation of the case. They found that there was “no basis” for the allegations and noted that, at least when it came to the plan itself it was unclear if there was plagiarism and, even if there was, it was unlikely West was behind it.
As the paper noted, the drafting of the actual plan was done in a committee and, more importantly, it was a committee West rarely, if ever, sat in on. Furthermore, the Daily News claimed that the act of reusing text and content when drafting such a proposal is commonplace.
However, this still left the issue of the quote in the newsletter and, to that, West admitted to the plagiarism the day after the second article. In another article in the Winona Post, West apologized for the plagiarism, both to Wilson as the original author and the Winona community.
That, however, has done little to placate Baratto, who said that he is seeking advice from the Minnesota School Boards Association on how to handle the admitted plagiarism.
But the case is a very complex one and deals heavily with the collision of different types of work and differing expectations of citation. As the superintendent of a school district, West has an obligation to ensure that work his office produces sets a good example for the students he’s responsible for. However, the copying and reuse of text for legislative purposes is highly common, so much so the Sunlight Foundation has a project dedicated to finding legislative plagiarism.
While the plagiarized quote is a far more straightforward problem, and one that West has already apologized for and may face consequences for, the report itself is the more difficult question. Due to the type of content, was it even plagiarism? If it was, is West responsible for the plagiarism even though he wasn’t involved in the drafting? If so, what steps should he have taken to avoid the issue?
These are issues that school districts need to address when drafting ethics policies for their staff. After all, school district employees will be writing a wide variety of material, not all of it that would normally be held to academic standards of citation. Determining what the standards of citation are and who is responsible for upholding them is key to avoiding confusion.
Such policies can go a long way to avoiding situations such as this one, which can undermine public support at a very delicate time.