Legal Brief

Limits on Political Electioneering
By JOY S. BASKIN/School Administrator, November 2019

SUPERINTENDENT BUZZ BUSBY wraps up a press release with dates and locations for voting in the upcoming school district election. Two school board positions and school bonds are on the ballot. Buzz decides the press release is a little dull so he adds the slogan, “Vote Yes for Our Kids’ Future.”

Buzz also writes his weekly blog, this time about pending education bills at the statehouse and the contested governor’s race. Buzz hints one candidate would be better for education, and he retweets a “back to school” post from that campaign.

Finally Buzz opens his private e-mail and sends some juicy gossip about a board candidate, hoping to help the incumbent. He walks out to his district-provided sedan, admiring the new bumper sticker: “Carter for Congress.” He is proud that a former local board member is running for the congressional seat.

Common Prohibitions
Face it — there’s no escaping politics in public education. From state and national elections to local elections on bonds and taxes, elections drive key decisions.

The laws about political advocacy vary by state, so be sure you know the rules in your jurisdiction. That said, most states have similar prohibitions on the use of public funds (including employee time, facilities and communication tools) to support a candidate or political party or to advocate for the outcome of measures such as a bond election.

So where did Buzz go wrong?

» Encouraging voter participation is OK. School districts regularly conduct elections in and about schools. Schools also teach principles of civic engagement and good citizenship. Hosting voter registration, sharing information about voting and candidate forums, and facilitating employees’ opportunity to vote are acceptable ways school districts encourage voting.

» Sharing factual information is permissible. In most states, school districts are allowed, even required, to share specific factual information about elections and measures on the ballot. Buzz’s “dull” press release sounds just right.

» Trying to influence votes is not OK. Buzz gets into trouble, however, when he adds a persuasive slogan to his official communication. Most states would prohibit direct advocacy in favor of the school bonds. For that reason, local citizens often form a PAC. School officials may be able to join a PAC as private individuals but adding a link to the PAC website or encouraging PAC participation through official channels would violate the law.

» Advocating for public education is fine, but you can’t be candidate specific. In most states, as long as lobbying laws are followed, school officials can explain, even advocate on legislative proposals. Remember, however, that the district is accountable to the community. Many school districts choose to limit communication to factual information.

When it comes to use of the superintendent’s time and platform for advocacy, the board-superintendent team should reach a clear understanding about the scope of these activities. Concerns may arise if a superintendent takes a controversial position or is so involved in legislative activities that he or she is not able to address routine business.

Certainly, Buzz’s blog crossed a line when he focused on the governor’s race. Watch out, as well, for retweeting, sharing and “liking” candidates’ posts. Even posts that appear generic may show favoritism if only one candidate’s messages are being promoted.

» Personal political advocacy by school leaders must be on their own time and resources. Even if we agree that Buzz is entitled to his personal opinion, in most states, using school district time and technology (even on a personal account) and putting a bumper sticker on a school vehicle to support a candidate would be a misuse of public resources. For ethical and practical reasons, superintendents usually avoid getting involved in political races involving their own boards. Add the prohibition on using school resources to the list of good reasons to stay above the fray.

JOY BASKIN is the director of legal services of the Texas Association of School Boards in Austin, Texas.