The Elgin Independent School District is the second district to take issue with an assessment by Attorney General Ken Paxton that school officials broke the law by stumping for political candidates.
“At the outset, let me clearly state that Elgin ISD agrees with your statement that school districts ‘may not use state or local funds or other resources to electioneer for or against any candidate, measure, or political party,’” Mark Goulet, attorney for the Elgin district, wrote in a letter to Assistant Attorney General, Cleve Doty, dated March 21. “This is clearly established in statute. We do not, however, share your opinion that Elgin ISD has violated the law in this regard.”
Elgin is the second of five school districts that were sent letters signed by Doty outlining violations of state election law and asking school officials to refrain from the illegal activity. Lewisville Independent School District general counsel Jeff Crownover sent a similar letter to Doty challenging district lawbreaking.
He suggested the legal issue had been clouded by a non-binding five-page opinion Paxton sent in response to an inquiry by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R- Houston, about voting education methods being used by some of the more than 200 school districts that passed resolutions promoted by the non-profit group, Texas Educators Vote.
“I actually think the line is very clear,” Crownover told The Texas Monitor in a recent story. “It is impermissible to expend government resources to advocate for or against a candidate, political party, or measure on a ballot. I have seen very little confusion about this issue — until a letter was submitted to the attorney general raising this issue in response to school districts adopting a Culture of Voting resolution in 2017.”
When the districts failed to respond to requests for the correspondence, The Texas Monitor obtained copies of the letters from legal counsel for the Elgin and Galena Park School Districts with a formal request to the attorney general’s office through the Texas Public Information Act.
The Elgin Letter here:
The Galena Park letter here:
The attorney general has asked for and is waiting for public records requested from both districts before taking any further steps, Abigail Doty, a spokesperson for the agency told The Texas Monitor Thursday.
Attorney General Spokeswoman Abigail Doty did not respond to requests by The Texas Monitor soliciting comment on the letters from someone with her department.
Those letters included email correspondence and social media screen-grabs to identify instances of school administrators and teachers electioneering, or calling on colleagues to cast votes for particular candidates. The letters pointed out instances where educators had used taxpayer underwritten resources to do their campaigning.
Elgin’s attorney challenged the AG’s characterization of exchanges on District Superintendent Jodi Duron’s Twitter page as illegal electioneering prior to the Republican primary between incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Scott Milder (which Patrick won handily). The letter included retweets from others calling Patrick a bully, and from Milder, who was active in contacting teachers statewide on Twitter.
Goulet said Duron’s Twitter account now bears her own name, rather than “EISD Superintendent” to make clear that what she was doing was “on her own time, and at no expense to the school district or the public. She uses a personal device to post messages that are her personal speech. No person, school employee or otherwise, assists with this account.”
Duron also added a disclaimer, “Opinions stated herein are my own,” Goulet said in the letter.
The district removed two posts identified by Doty from an “Elgin ISD HR” Twitter account, a human resources account to which Goulet said just five district employees have access.
“I’m sure you would agree that it is common for public officials to maintain a presence on social media,” Goulet wrote. “Our president and our governor certainly do. One of the elected Texas Supreme Court Justices has famously earned the nickname “Tweeter in Chief.”
Galena Park’s counsel, Merri Schneider-Vogel, offered a mea culpa for North Shore High School Principal Joe Coleman, whose emails not only urged educators to vote for Milder, but admitted he was probably doing something wrong by advocating.
“GPISD adamantly disagrees,” however, with the AG’s contention Coleman’s electioneering was done on behalf of the school district, Schneider-Vogel wrote.
“Dr. Coleman was in no way speaking for the District and did not have permission from the Superintendent, Board of Trustees, or any other administrator in the District to send the email he sent on February 4, 2018,” her letter said. “His email was not an official communication of GPISD, and he has acknowledged that he should not have sent the email.”
All correspondence involving endorsement of candidates or particular voting items has been scrubbed from the district’s website, and human resources informed district employees they are not permitted to encourage voting for specific candidates or measures, or to use public resources for that purpose, Schneider-Vogel wrote.
“In the context of working together to resolve this matter, the District wishes to express its disappointment about the way your office chose to communicate about these concerns,” Jeff Crownover, Lewisville’s general counsel wrote to an assistant attorney general. “To my knowledge, your office did not attempt to reach out to any Board member or administrator in LISD to express these concerns or obtain the District’s response to the allegations. The District asserts that it would have been extremely helpful for your office to have at least spoken with the District before jumping to the conclusions you reached in your letter.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].