District effort to lobby voters won't apply to school vote

Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Juneau School Board has introduced a policy that will allow the district to spend public money to influence ballot propositions. But Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the board does not intend to spend money to influence the upcoming special election about building a high school at Dimond Park.

The election is set for May 25, pending federal approval.

"The board's current approach is to allow the citizen groups to be the advocacy groups and take the lead in the advocacy," she said.

The board last Tuesday also unanimously passed a resolution supporting a high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

The board's resolution says it supports a second high school because voters have approved it three times, smaller learning communities will benefit students, the operating costs will be covered by state and city funds and savings, the state will reimburse construction at 60 percent and two schools will provide more opportunities for student involvement in school activities.

The proposed changes to the board's policy on spending public money to influence elections is in keeping with state law, Cowan said. The district consulted with its own attorney and with officials from the state Department of Education, Department of Law and the Alaska Public Offices Commission, she said.

State law allows public entities such as the state, the university, cities and school districts to spend advocacy funds as long as the money is specifically appropriated for that purpose.

Public entities also can spend funds, without a specific appropriation, to put forth nonpartisan information. Public officials also can advocate a position, without a specific appropriation, if speaking to the public is a regular part of their duties, said Christina Ellingson, assistant director of the Public Offices Commission.

A state education regulation prohibits school districts from spending district funds to influence a public vote only if it's an election that includes candidates on the ballot.

Another proposed district policy clarifies that partisan doctrines cannot be advocated in schools while they are in session or during school-sponsored activities.

"It was just meant to articulate current assumptions and practices, based on law," Cowan said. "The law says you can't do political activities during school hours."

The policy says: "School property may not be used for activities related to political campaigns, other than non-partisan forums on issues or candidates, while school is in session or during any school-sponsored activity."

The board's proposed regulation, in including school-sponsored activities, goes beyond what the state law requires.

But Cowan said the policy wouldn't preclude citizens from soliciting signatures for ballot initiatives from audiences at sports events, for example. The state Public Offices Commission doesn't consider that to be a political activity, Cowan said. Also weighing in the district's judgment is that the public is invited to sports events, she said.

The policy also says that classroom discussions of political or partisan issues must be related to the curriculum and must consider different viewpoints.

That policy is appropriate and in keeping with teachers' professional ethics, which prohibit using the classroom as a pulpit, said Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Clay Good, one of the sponsors of the ballot initiative on the upcoming special election.

The policy doesn't restrict personal and private speech on school property if it doesn't create the appearance that the school has sponsored the speech.

"What we're trying to do is maintain neutrality on controversial issues, to strike a balance between sponsorship or appearance of sponsorship of partisan or political speech, but at the same time allow community members to have free-speech rights," Cowan said.

The proposed policies are scheduled for a vote at the board's April 6 meeting.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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