Elgin ISD: AG, we did not violate the law; Galena Park ISD: AG, we erred

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Ken Paxton, Angela Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, front, with his wife, Angela Paxton (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP)

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.

As he did earlier in letters to the Lewisville, Brazosport, and Holliday school districts, Doty set compliance deadlines for Elgin (here) and Galena Park (here).

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.

Public employees are not permitted by law to campaign for candidates or use public resources to do it — with prohibitions laid out in the Texas Education Code and the Texas Election Code.

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].

46 COMMENTS

  1. When your Twitter account name was “EISD Superintendent” (which has now been changed according to the attorney letter in the article) in addition to the public posts that went out under “Elgin ISD HR” (also removed now), it seems pretty black and white to me that lines were crossed. Schools and officials need to be called out on it, regardless of party.

  2. WOW! I’m shocked that Republicans can cut funding to schools, teachers and students, then rant about being against them. PS Only in Texas can a felon be Attorney General.

    • Parents are responsible for the health and welfare of THEIR kids, not the teacher, not the school district, not the Superintendent.
      Schools HAVE to remain neutral because there job is EDUCATION. Any thing else is political indoctrination.

    • Noone is stopping teachers from speaking up and advocating on their own time and with their own resources. They just can’t do it with taxpayer resources, including time when they are at work.

    • Thomas Harrison encouraging voting is neutral. It’s part of your civic duty to vote. As long as schools aren’t telling anyone who to vote for, they are within the law. And the law already prohibits district resources from being used to campaign for people or issues. That’s why superintendents are taught to use their personal email and personal time if they want to be involved in politics.

  3. Schools are public entities funded by tax dollars. They should stick to the the purpose of clean academics no politics in class. Certainly no involvement in political activities. On your own as a private citizen make the politics you want. Take it to the school and students lose your job!!

    • Right now in Texas property taxes are sustaining public schools. Teachers, superintendants, board members all pay property taxes to local districts, some more than others. Free speech and free press endangered by Paxton, Patrick, and Abbott.
      .

    • They’re prohibited by law from being involved in political activities. However encouraging voting is not a political activity if you don’t tell people how to vote. The law actually requires schools to register their 18 year olds to vote. Teaching civics is not teaching politics.

  4. Public education is progressivism. Teachers and administrators are the last bastion of communism, and will die before allowing parents and taxpayers proper supervision of their activities. Dismantling the public school system will mean freedom from exploitation for our children, and justice for taxpayers….Let’s do it!

    • So in Texas, the public education system run by local elected officials (school board) at the local level and Republican appointees at the state level and funded by a republican dominated legislature are somehow communist? Do you realize that the public schools are the center of most small communities and often their largest employer? Do you realize teachers, principals, and superintendents are your relatives and neighbors? Do you realize the Texas Constitution requires public education? No, you don’t realize any of this because you obviously had a poor experience in school (not everyone can be the valedictorian) and now wish to spread your sillines to those dim enough to listen.

    • Yes, Republicans in Texas fully support coercion as a means of governing. It’s easier to force children into indoctrination centers, and then rob their parents to pay for it, than to put an end to the coercive relationships that define our current system of government. No public school since around 1900 has EVER provided a real education to ANY child. That fact should be obvious to anyone who has actually THOUGHT about what a real education is all about.

    • Your the ignorant one Leslie. Texas is the best because we have had Republicans. You should really do research into liberal controlled cities or states – they are the one’s stealing (as you put it) all the funds (taxpayer funds). You need to wake up.

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