We were asked to weigh in on issues dealing with the Willoughby-Eastlake schools and what is permitted under the Ohio Revised Code dealing with campaigning for property tax levies. We would like to pass along what we have learned.
Issues at hand: Can a school district use their student database of emails and telephone numbers to promote a levy on the ballot? Can a principal send emails to parents discussing how to get the next levy passed.
Lobbyists for Citizens sent a records request under ORC 149.43 (B) (1) to Mr. Steve Thompson, Superintendent of Willoughby-Eastlake schools asking for all correspondence between the W-E school district and the political action committee formed to support the property tax levy on the November 5, 2019 ballot. W-E RECORDS REQUEST 11-19-19
Mr. Thompson, to his credit, responded immediately and stated that he had no knowledge of records pertaining to the Political Action Committee.
LFC followed up with this question: “Would you have any knowledge about how the PAC is obtaining the telephone numbers and email addresses of the school children’s parents? Citizens want to be sure that school databases are not just given to one group supporting the levy. If you can assure us that this is not happening, we will be glad to report that for everyone to see, so that false statements do not spread throughout the community.”
Mr. Thompson’ response: “At every meeting that is held by the levy committee, they collect phone numbers, email addresses, names and physical addresses. They have been doing this for several years.”
So it appears to LFC that the PAC supporting the W-E school levies is an entrenched, well-oiled machine that is very committed to the school. To answer the next question regarding the principal sending emails to parents, we had to do some research.
Our local Elections Board stated that the question is out of their jurisdiction, and the State Elections Board may not be able to help either. We then turned to the Internet and found this very informative website: https://www.bricker.com/insights-resources/publications/dos-and-donts-for-ballot-issue-campaigns-for-school-districts
There is a great deal of information on the website. Here are a few excerpts that address our concerns:
(1) “…boards of education are prohibited from using “public funds to support or oppose the passage of a school levy or bond issue or to compensate any school district employee for time spent on any activity intended to influence the outcome of a school levy or bond issue election.”
(2) “Criticisms about a district’s activity in support of a levy or ballot issue campaign are becoming increasingly more prevalent as anti-tax and other citizen groups become more organized.” (LFC Comment: Take note – the push-back on the non-sustainable, ever-increasing property taxes is starting all over Ohio.)
(3) “School employees, administrators and board members have a First Amendment right to participate in the electoral process and in ballot issue campaigns. However, they must be very careful to keep all campaign–related activity off school property and segregated from any school time or resources. Districts should adopt and consistently enforce clear and neutral policies that regulate campaign activity by the district, its board and its employees.”
(4) “Can we allow school employees to use district email to conduct school levy activity on their own time?
No. Use of district resources, even the minimal amount of resources involved when sending and/or receiving an email, is prohibited. The law does not create a minimum threshold or provide a de minimis standard below which use of district resources is permitted.”
(5) “Can we send materials that are prepared by and paid for by the levy committee home to parents in student mail?
No. Doing so would be considered a use of school resources for the levy because it would require teachers and other staff to spend district time to sort and process the materials for distribution to students.”
(6) “Can the district provide its mailing lists or contact lists to the levy committee?
Technically, yes, but we recommend caution. The district may sell its property, including mailing lists, as outlined above so long as the information being provided is public information. However, once the district sells a list to one party, it should do so for anyone else who asks. Employees or vendors may be upset by what they perceive as a violation of their privacy in this manner.”
(7) “Can a school district prohibit employees from conveying their political views through discussion with students during work time?
Yes. This type of broad restriction on political speech or campaigning, not targeting a particularized message, is supported by case law that allows public employers to regulate a public employee’s speech if it is made pursuant to his or her official duties, provided the restrictions are supported by an adequate justification such as a legitimate pedagogical concern or a desire to maintain neutrality on controversial issues. It is important that a district enforce any policy on this topic uniformly and consistently.”
(LFC Comments: Regarding the principal sending emails to parents, it appears that is permitted as long as it is not done during school hours. All teachers and coaches have first amendment rights to express support for the school levy, as long as it is not done during school business hours.
So what about the teachers that tell their students in the classroom to tell their parents to vote for the levy? It seems to LFC that this is a violation of the Ohio Revised Code, and should stop immediately. We ask that all administrators stop this unfair, illegal action by the teachers, and coaches.)