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While the city is caught up in heated debate over whether to build a second high school, citizens should not overlook a proposal the Juneau School Board introduced recently.
The board is considering changing school policy so that the district can spend public money to influence ballot propositions.
This is not an effort to take money away from education and pour it into campaigns to influence Juneau voters, said district Superintendent Peggy Cowan. If the board approves this policy, it would only involve a nominal amount of funds, she said. And the proposal comes with other policy changes that would limit political activity, such as making it clear that advocacy on public issues cannot take place during school hours or school-sponsored activities.
The board does not plan to use this policy to influence the outcome of the upcoming special election on the new high school, according to Cowan.
And the proposal is in keeping with state law, which allows this type of political activity by cities, school districts and the university.
But just because this is legal doesn't mean it's right.
Two inquiries have come up recently that illustrate how this policy could work, if approved. One of these inquiries came from a school's site council, an advisory group made up of parents, teachers and other staff members. The site council wanted to write a letter to the editor in support of a second high school. But legal questions might be raised if the group uses its meeting time or a district building to do this, Cowan said. Changing the policy would ensure that the council could do this and withstand a legal challenge.
In another instance, someone wanted to hang up signs at the Juneau-Douglas High School gym during the Gold Medal Tournament advocating the much-debated new school. The signs would not be hung during school hours and would be at a public event unrelated to the high school. The district is wary of granting such permission now, but could do so under its proposed policy changes.
But the measure begs an important question: Would the district let the opponents of the new school also push its political literature during Gold Medal? And do we want to turn school property into a political battlefield? We think not.
The School Board should drop the proposal to allow political advocacy on the district's nickel because it does not allow for a level playing field. Say, for instance, that site council members decide to use school equipment and supplies to produce a large number of pamphlets to push a ballot measure. This gives them more resources than other citizens, who would have to come up with the money to do this on their own.
Part of the reason for this proposed policy change is to allow groups to have a voice, Cowan said.
However, plenty of venues for free speech already exist. A school site-council member, as a private citizen, can write letters to the editor, speak out on school projects and disperse pamphlets on an issue if they choose. School board members, as elected officials, also can lobby for ballot initiatives. And if people connected with the district want to push a school-related issue, they're free to create citizen groups of their own.
Most of the changes the School Board is proposing are sound. But Juneau citizens should discourage the School Board from allowing the district to spend public money to influence ballot propositions. Political battles should be left to citizen groups and the many individuals who care deeply about school issues.