The Edmond Sun

Opinion

May 27, 2014

OUR VIEW: Schools should examine future lobbying efforts

EDMOND — The Edmond Board of Education will have its annual summer retreat next week in which the members will gather to plan for policy changes for the next academic year. They also will look at the district’s overall goals as well as long-range planning for facility and program needs.

In light of this spring’s massive education rally at the state Capitol, we would ask the board to consider strengthening its policies in regard to use of district property as it relates to lobbying efforts.

In February, the Edmond Board of Education passed the Oklahoma Education Coalition’s funding rally resolution verbatim. The resolution states that student academic achievement is being negatively impacted as a result of state funding cuts to common education and that Oklahoma school districts have experienced the most severe funding cuts in the nation. The resolution also stated that Oklahoma teachers and support personnel have not received raises in seven years and that class sizes are increasing while enrichment programs are being cut due to budgetary constraints.

Once the resolution passed, a full-fledged campaign swung into action to get parents fired up and motivated enough to swarm the state Capitol in late March. The masses of parents, educators and students demanded that the Legislature find a way to staunch the loss of dollars to classrooms.

We agree there are problems with both how education is funded in Oklahoma and how it must swing wildly back and forth in the constant winds of change coming from the Legislature.

And while parents and educators absolutely should exercise their First Amendment right to free speech in an effort to improve education, we do not agree they should do so on taxpayers’ dimes using district communication systems and transportation equipment. If this had been an election, state ethics rules would forbid the use of what is essentially state property from being used for a political purpose in aiding one candidate or cause above another.

The Edmond Public School district made free use of its SchoolConnect app, its email system, its message boards at numerous school locations and rented school buses to Parent Teacher Organizations to transport hundreds of parents, administrators, educators and students to the rally March 31.

The district justified the use of the school buses by citing Edmond School District Policy #5770, which was adopted by the school board in 1997. This policy states that “School vehicles are acquired with public funds and are to be used solely for the benefit of the School District, related services and official school business.” The policy goes on to address situations in which permission might be given to certain personnel to drive a bus home overnight for use the next day.

The district interprets using school buses and paying district school bus drivers for what essentially was a political lobbying event in that the use of such equipment was deemed by the board as “for the benefit of the School District.”

Maybe so, but that’s a fairly broad interpretation of a 1997 policy that doesn’t really seem to fit today’s situation. Since that policy was instituted by a previous Board of Education, the district also has allowed school buses to be rented for use by the UCO Endeavor Games, the PGA, YMCA programs and for transporting residents to the state’s Centennial Celebration in 2007.

On its face, there’s nothing really wrong with those uses as they’ve gone through the proper district channels each time. The problem comes in what happens when the district is approached for the use of district-owned property for a cause or event they disagree with and say no. Can they justify under current policy withholding district equipment for other civic uses, or even other lobbying uses now that they’ve done it themselves? What if a citizens group wants to rent school district buses to transport large numbers of people to the Capitol to lobby for a measure that is harmful to the district?

The school board’s resolution said the district should support the education rally, but it did not say by any means necessary.

If you think about school districts across the state all using their communication systems and transportation equipment en masse to promote and attend the rally, there is no larger political machine out there. There is no other group with the power to communicate and motivate so many people at once. This type of power should be used wisely and it should have some boundaries and guidelines for future use as it relates to taxpayer-funded resources. Part of the problem with the March 31 rally is that some districts did not show the good taste used by Edmond and went much farther into the realm of politics in how they used their resources.

Given the state of education these days, it’s likely that school districts will find they once again have cause to rally at the Capitol in the not-so-distant future. We hope they find ways to get their message across to parents, patrons and lawmakers in ways that do not potentially compromise the integrity of taxpayer-funded resources.

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