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Board revisits politics at school

Members in favor of a change say current rules restricting political activity are too stringent and may conflict with the First Amendment.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002


Alan Minthorn is both a teacher and a candidate for School Board.

So when his students at Springstead High School started asking him questions about his candidacy during classes this spring, Minthorn found himself in an awkward spot.

As a teacher, he wanted to answer. But as a candidate and a school district employee, he was bound by policy to avoid "political activity" while on duty.

So, Minthorn says, he tried to find a good compromise: He gave the kids a short answer but told them his political career was a topic best left alone during class. Even Minthorn's opponent, incumbent Sandra Nicholson, deems it a reasonable response.

However, as the election season begins in earnest, School Board members are still revising their rules on the kinds of political activity they want to allow on school grounds, particularly activity involving school employees.

Some of the issues hanging in the balance could affect how local candidates conduct their campaigns, how voters learn about candidates and how school employees may express their political views on the job.

School Board members seem to agree that their current policy on political activity is too restrictive. In some cases, board members worry that it infringes on the First Amendment rights of their staffers; in others, they say it is a disservice to the community.

Under the current rules:

Cars in school parking lots cannot carry political signs or bumper stickers.

Political forums cannot be held in school auditoriums.

School buildings may not be used after hours for partisan political meetings, even if it's for a club of young Republicans or young Democrats.

The time-honored tradition of candidate advertisements in school publications -- such as the programs handed out at high school football games -- is against the rules.

School Board members allowed some of those rules to creep into their policy during routine policy revisions in recent years. But some have been there for years and simply ignored until the board recently asked School Board attorney Karen Gaffney to review them.

That review was prompted, at least in part, by Nicholson's concern about Minthorn's actions.

Both Nicholson and Minthorn attended a community meeting on growth management at Hernando High School during spring break in March.

Outside the meeting, Minthorn began asking people to sign petition cards that would help him get his name on the ballot.

Nicholson confronted Minthorn and told him he was breaking School Board policy by soliciting support on campus.

Minthorn stopped, even though he does not feel he broke any rules, because gathering support is forbidden only during "regular work hours," according to district policy.

He also disclosed to Nicholson that his students had been asking about his campaign.

Nicholson says she just wants a level playing field for all candidates. She said the review, and any policy changes that come from it, should help clarify the rules.

After the board's recent discussions, Gaffney put together a new policy on political activities that the School Board will likely vote on at its July 16 meeting. The proposal would loosen the restrictions on bumper stickers, forums, partisan meetings and ads in school publications.

Even if the policy gets support then, the changes would need final approval in mid August.

The primary election is Sept. 10.

Beyond the changes coming up for a vote, there are unresolved issues. Board members agree that no student or school employee should be pressured into aiding or supporting any candidate. But other issues aren't so clear-cut.

Should teachers be allowed to wear political badges in class? Should school employees be allowed to ship campaign literature -- even the candidate petition cards -- from school to school using the "pony," the district's interoffice mail service? Should teachers be allowed to spend their planning periods having political discussions?

Each of those topics drew different viewpoints at a recent board workshop.

Three board members -- Nicholson, Robert Wiggins and, potentially, John Druzbick -- could be directly affected by the choices they make.

Both Nicholson and Wiggins have opposition in the September primary election. Druzbick is as yet unopposed, but the candidate filing period isn't over.

Druzbick says school employees should not have to check their First Amendments rights at the door to their workplace.

And he says teachers should be able to talk politics or even swap campaign literature between classes.

"Part of our democracy is to share ideas like this," Druzbick said.

Aside from fairness, Nicholson says her greatest concern is that people -- staffers or students -- do not feel pressured by a boss or a teacher to support a candidate with money or time. She says it has happened in years past.

"I don't like people feeling that their job or their grade depends on whether they are going to support someone who is pressuring him," she said.

Wiggins says he would like to see a general relaxation of the rules, though he says he understands the concern about political pressure.

He said he has had school district employees offer to help with his campaign when he has seen them off school grounds. He has also had people pass around petition cards on his behalf to school district employees who signed them and returned them to him at School Board meetings.

If he had it to do over, Wiggins said, he might have asked those employees to return the cards after work or outside of the board room.

Still, he sees nothing wrong when people volunteer their help. "I think common sense should prevail," he said.

Perhaps the board's most ardent advocate for freer rules on political activity has been Jim Malcolm.

At a recent meeting, Malcolm recounted how, years ago, his son and his son's friends wore his campaign T-shirts to school. He recalled how, 30 years ago, teachers he worked with in the Northeast wore George McGovern buttons to class.

Malcolm said no one should feel pressured and none of the activity should interfere with school business. But he vehemently opposes restrictions on political activity.

"We don't want to create a Tammany Hall situation where (people say) you will support this person if you like working here," he said. "There have got to be safeguards there, and I think that could be accomplished."

What's required, Malcolm said, is that employees have "the right to participate, the right not to and that they feel equally comfortable in either."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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