Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent cease and desist letters to three public school districts this week. The letters reference advocacy campaigns that the AG says violate the state’s education and election codes as “unlawful electioneering.”
In a news release, Paxton said that public school districts in Lewisville, Brazosport, and Holliday used taxpayer resources to distribute messages to their staff that publicly advocate for or against certain political candidates and measures.
“My office fully encourages Texas schools to educate their students on civic duties and assist them in registering to vote. But pushing faculty or others to vote for a particular person is a clear violation of the Texas Election and Education Codes,” said Paxton.
The letters, sent on Wednesday, include screenshots of the purported political messaging on social media and in campaign videos where the districts distributed partisan information, that the AG’s office says was done so “on behalf of the school district as a government entity, acting in its official capacity” using funds that “belong to the taxpayers of Texas.”
In the Lewisville ISD letter, the AG’s office cites a district produced three-minute video that features Superintendent Kevin Rogers. He advocates for “the election of candidates that hold particular political views of the Texas Legislature.” Rogers asserts: “They are attacking you and me” and urges teachers to “unite behind the common cause this spring, ensuring pro-education legislators come out of the primary and move onto the general election in November.”
Rogers also “challenges” educators to “use your teacher voice and let the Texas Legislature know you’ve had enough.” He insists: “It is time for you and me to choose legislatures that serve us as constituents,” alleging, “instead of being worried about the fringe of their party.” This video is posted across the district’s social media platforms. As of late Friday, it remained in the Lewisville ISD Twitter feed but no longer appeared as a “pinned tweet.”
— Lewisville ISD (@LewisvilleISD) February 13, 2018
In a companion letter on the district website, Rogers appeals to parents in Lewisville, a northern Dallas suburb, to “elect pro-public education legislators at the state and local levels” in the upcoming March 6 primary election. He postures that certain unnamed state legislators do not support public education. “Together, we can create a wave of support for public schools…and elect legislators who truly represent our students and our schools.” Rogers closes the letter by saying: “Are you with me?”
In Brazosport ISD, located in Southeast Texas, the demand letter highlights numerous examples of published statements and resolutions “advocating for and against the election of particular candidates and measures.” It includes a captioned photo tweeted by Brazoswood High School’s district superintendent, Danny Massey, embracing Scott Milder, the GOP challenger to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. It reads: “Thank you @smilder for standing up for public ed. Red dot for Scott. Vote in the March 6 primary. #TASA18” The account has since been deleted.
“TASA 18” appears to reference the recently held Texas Association of School Administrators 2018 mid-winter conference.
Assistant Attorney General Cleve Doty notes in this letter that Massey “repeatedly posted endorsements of particular candidates to his official school page” and sent messages that call Milder the best choice for Lt. Governor.
“Brazosport ISD further encourages district staff and stakeholders to engage in a ‘block vote’ against certain candidates and for others, publicizing campaigns by partisan organizations and directing the public to partisan websites,” states the letter.
The cease and desist letter sent to Holliday ISD, located near Wichita Falls, points to the district promoting bloc voting and “advocating for the election of candidates who hold particular political views of the Texas Legislature.” It includes screenshots of Holliday ISD retweets of partisan materials that ask individuals to vote “pro-pub ed in every election” and an article that asserts “public schools are under serious political attack in Texas” alleging that attack is “from elected officials at the state level.”
“These school districts must understand that they are responsible, as all state agencies are, for refraining from spending public funds on advocating for or opposing political candidates,” stated Paxton. “The electioneering of these school districts is unacceptable and a poor example of the civic responsibility, integrity, and honesty that Texas educators should model for our students.”
Breitbart Texas reported that, in December, state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked Paxton if school districts can legally use taxpayer dollars for political advertising or communications designed to influence voters on a particular measure or candidate. He also questioned if school districts can provide transportation for employees and eligible student voters to polling locations or if this action violates state law. Bettencourt’s request for an AG opinion came in response to a resolution by Texas Educators Vote, a third-party advocacy group which identifies as nonpartisan and asserts its school-based voter registration drive only promotes “civic engagement.” They created a “culture of voting” resolution that nudges school district employees to take an educator’s “oath.” It promises to “block vote” [Sic] in favor of certain candidates that espouse a favored pro-public education stance.
More than 100 Texas school districts signed the resolution endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), a lobbyist organization that advocates in the interests of public schools. It comprises the largest group of publicly-elected officials in the state, including all 1,030 Texas school districts, 20 regional education service centers, 50 community colleges, 16 tax appraisal districts, and 137 shared service arrangements.
The AG’s office asked these school districts to remove all “political messaging” from “public space” by Friday, February 16. So far, Dyes confirmed to KFDX Thursday that Holliday ISD will comply with Paxton’s request. Conversely, Lewisville school board president Angie Cox told the Lewisville Texan Journal the district will not take down the materials, noting they will draft a letter back to the Attorney General “respectfully disagreeing with the response.” Cox maintained Lewisville ISD did not endorse any candidates. “We were simply sending a message about voting, and I don’t see any harm in that.”
Subsequently, state Senator José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) voiced his opinion on the situation. He expressed outrage, but not because these schools purportedly used taxpayer dollars “unlawfully” to promote candidates or measures. Instead, Menéndez blasted Paxton over the cease and desist letters. Menéndez wrote to the AG, demanding Paxton immediately “rescind this unlawful letter.” He accused the AG of attempting “to bully or coerce school districts from encouraging their communities to exercise their rights to vote.” Menéndez threatened, “Should you decide not to retract this letter within the next seven days, I will have no other course of action but to seek alternative resolutions, which will include third party mediations, including (but not limited to) the Department of Justice.”
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