EXCLUSIVE — Texas Public School District Emails Encouraged Staff to Switch Parties to Influence GOP Primary

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Associated Press

Amid accusations of “political advocacy” leveled against several Texas public school districts by Attorney General Ken Paxton, emails obtained from one jurisdiction under review highlight commentary advocating for political party switching in primary elections and the promotion of a single slate of candidates–all on an official communication network.

Several Texas school districts recently came under fire over purported “political advocacy” campaigns involving the state’s March 6, 2018 primary election. Six days before early voting began, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton alleged these schools violated education and election codes.

The Lewisville Independent School District was one of three that Paxton sent a cease and desist letter on February 14, accusing them of using taxpayer resources to distribute messages to staff that publicly advocated for or against certain political candidates and measures. Much of the controversy stemmed from a 2018 “Your Voice Matters” three-minute primary campaign video that appeared on the school district’s social media platforms. It featured Superintendent Kevin Rogers.

Paxton contended Rogers advocated for “the election of candidates that hold particular political views of the Texas Legislature.” Lewisville ISD insisted they did not promote a specific candidate and only provided “factual” information.

At issue in the current election cycle is the line where factual information sharing ends and “political advocacy” begins. The AG’s office recently asked Lewisville and other school districts for six months worth of election-related staff emails to better determine if any code violations occurred.

Breitbart Texas obtained emails sent by Lewisville ISD (LISD) Superintendent Rogers to “LISD Staff” from a past advocacy campaign, the 2016 “Your Voice Matters,” conducted during a presidential election year.

On January 25, 2016, Rogers emailed “LISD Staff” stating, “In the coming weeks and months, you will notice our district becoming more politically active,” adding “our participation in the political process has never been more critical than it will be in the next legislative session.”

Like in recent claims, Rogers alleged “our noble profession is under attack by those who claim to have the best interest of students at heart, but seem to be working against those of us who are in the trenches each day, serving students.” He named “a great non-profit called Friends of Texas Public Schools (FOTPS),” which he stated “posted this letter to Texas teachers, and it really gets to the heart of what we are facing.”

Rogers wrote:

FOTPS said: The Texas Legislature has been working against you and your schools for decades and will continue to do what it can to undermine your ability to do your jobs in the classroom. While some of our elected representatives and senators are friendly toward public education, many are not. Their campaign contributors want vouchers and charters so they can profit from the billions invested annually in our public schools. They also want to attack your benefits such as TRS and your health insurance. That’s the simple and ugly truth.

FOTPS, an Austin-based advocacy organization, was co-founded by Scott Milder (R-Rockwall), the 2018 GOP primary challenger to incumbent Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. Patrick handily defeated Milder on Tuesday evening. The Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the state’s chapter of the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, endorsed Milder.

In 2016, Rogers provided a link in his “LISD Staff” email list for district employees to click through to “to read the full letter” FOTPS posted entitled “Open Letter to the Terrific Teachers of Texas” written by Milder and wife Leslie. In it, the Milders stated that whoever won in the GOP March 2016 primary was likely to win in the November 2016 general election. Then, they advocated that teachers switch political parties in that primary to affect the outcome:

For those of you inclined to vote in the Democratic primary to support your presidential candidate of choice, please know your vote would be less meaningful than if you vote in the Republican Primary.

The couple asserted “gerrymandering” in state elections resulted in GOP victories. The letter continued, “You’ll be able to vote for the Democrat or Republican presidential candidate in the November general election.” The letter offered further advice on how to engage with the Republican primary and where to access a preferred slate of candidates:

What’s the takeaway of this message? Register to vote, VOTE, and vote in the Republican Primary during early voting February 16-26, or on the Primary Election Day, March 1. Need help determining who are the most education-friendly candidates? We always check in on who the Texas Parent PAC has endorsed. They will post their slate of candidates online at www.txparentpac.com.

In 2018, Texas Parent PAC also endorsed Milder for Lt. Governor for the March 6 Primary. Two years ago, Breitbart Texas reported that billionaire H-E-B supermarket magnate Charles Butt funded this top “power PAC” in the state.

Rogers, in his 2016 staff email, folded in another paragraph from the FOTPS letter to make a point:

Although your vote alone may not have great influence, if combined with your 600,000+ peers across Texas, public school educators would own the outcome of virtually any election. Why is this important to you? Currently, the education profession has very low voter turnout, which means elected officials do not listen to educators. They listen to those who vote and those who contribute. While educators are not known for their wealth and ability to contribute, they can show up at the polls in great numbers and elect education-friendly candidates! That is what we need to do next month.

The superintendent ended his correspondence with a call to action which “encouraged” recipients to vote in the primary. Rogers again referenced the FOTPS letter he hyperlinked into the text:

As noted in the FOTPS letter, in Texas, we can’t wait until the general election in November to vote because the winner of the Republican primary is more often than not the winner of the general election. For that reason, I want to encourage you to vote in the upcoming primary election in March. If you aren’t already registered to vote, please do so this week because the deadline is Feb. 1. Your vote in the primary can give educators a voice in the future of our students, and the future of our profession, as we know it.

On February 15, 2016, Rogers sent another “LISD Staff” email, this time apprising “when and where we can engage in election-time speech.” He wrote:

According to Texas state law, school employees are not allowed to advocate for or against particular candidates or measures on work time or use district resources, including office supplies and computer equipment. District-run websites and social media accounts maintained as your official work accounts also fall into this category, but advocating on your personal social media accounts is permissible.

However, this came weeks after the January 25 email Rogers sent, in his capacity as superintendent, to staffers, promoting a letter from FOTPS, a group that appeared to encourage Democrat teachers in Texas to vote Republican to apparently influence a March 2016 primary election.

The Lewisville ISD chief communications officer confirmed for Breitbart Texas that the superintendent sent the emails to staffers. In 2015-16, more than 6,000 full-time employees worked for the school district, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Roughly 3,800 of them were teachers.

Fast forward to a February 19, 2018, letter in which Lewisville ISD General Counsel Jeff Crownover responded to a request from the AG that the school district remove all “political messaging” from “public space” for the March primary. Crownover maintained “actions taken by LISD” were “within the law,” asserting there was no reason to take down the 2018 “Your Voice Matters” video as it did not name a single politician or candidate for office, nor did Rogers “encourage anyone to vote for a particular candidate,” mention a political party, or in which primary to vote.

Crownover called the AG’s letter “misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.” He stated “as an education leader, Dr. Rogers urges the community to make sure pro-education legislators are elected or re-elected to the legislature, which he called “far from an endorsement of a particular candidate, but a constitutional mandate and priority.”

The Lewisville Texan Journal reported that Paxton since asked Lewisville ISD in an open records request for “written communications” including emails “sent from an officer or employee of the district within the past six months regarding any election” that included the phrases “Texas Legislature” and “Primary,” plus emails to or from the superintendent on his school district email account(s) containing the words “Texas Legislature.”

More schools district said they, too, received AG requests for six months of election-related emails regarding potential “political advocacy” concerns. However, SMU political science professor Dr. Cal Jillson called this a “voter suppression attempt by the attorney general.”

Breitbart Texas previously reported:

The Texas Election Code defines “political advertising” as a communication that supports or opposes a candidate and/or measure and intends to influence the outcome of an election through the use of spoken and/or written statements made via means including television and radio, email messages, posters, newspapers, newsletters, fliers, pamphlets, billboards, and periodicals.

An officer or employee of a political subdivision (i.e., a school district) cannot spend public funds for political advertising. The code, however, exempts communications that factually describe the purposes of a measure if the communications do not advocate passage or defeat of a measure, according to the order.

In December, the Texas Ethics Commission sanctioned Ysleta ISD for state election code violations. Breitbart Texas reported the commission found “credible evidence” the superintendent and former school board president authorized spending public funds to produce a “special newsletter” one month before a November 2017 election. It contained “greetings” letters authored by the two school officials that the commission deemed went beyond “factually describing” bond measures and constituted “political advertising.” The superintendent disputed the commission’s decision, asserting they did not advocate for or against bond measures on the ballot.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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