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School district answers questions about political ads

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By Mallory Bilger

A busy and crowded election season has likely touched most Spencer County residents in some way or another, and now the local public school district is answering questions about how it handles political advertisements.
Spencer County Board of Education policies state that school property or materials should not be used to advance the support of a particular political position, party or candidate, but that rule was apparently not clearly understood by Taylorsville Elementary School PTA board members, who recently solicited support from local election candidates – among other organizations and businesses — for a school walk-a-thon. 
The issue arose last week when some concerned family members of TES students contacted TES, Superintendent Chuck Adams and The Spencer Magnet, stating they were upset that a political message appeared on the back of the 2014 TES Walk-a-thon t-shirt. The event was held at the school Friday and the shirt was purchased by both students and adults, TES PTA President April Roberts said. She said the walk-a-thon was held to raise money for school programs and supplies. 
Roberts said PTA members sent letters to all Spencer County election candidates, as well as other businesses and organizations, asking for sponsorships. She said current Spencer County Clerk Lynn Hesselbrock, who is seeking reelection, was the only candidate to respond to the request. Her message, “Re-elect Lynn Hesselbrock, Spencer County Clerk,” was among one of the seven sponsorship messages printed on the shirt. 
“In my mind, that wasn’t a big deal,” Roberts said, noting that only one parent had contacted her directly about the issue. She said she offered that parent her money back, but the parent declined. Roberts said the parent – who requested to remain anonymous -- expressed that the sponsorship message should have been worded differently.
“In retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have said re-elect,” Roberts said, noting the PTA sold 40 walk-a-thon shirts, many of which went to PTA members. She added that no political signs or any other political messages were displayed at the event, which raised around $2,100 for the school. 
Hesselbrock said she responded to the PTA’s request and that it was not her obligation to know the school’s policy on how it handles political advertisements.
“I’d do anything to help the students,” she said. 
“They came to me. My understanding is that (the PTA) approached all of the candidates and everyone was given an opportunity to participate,” she added. 
The issue has forced Adams and the Board of Education to question if policies are understood and enforced district wide. Adams said while the burden to educate the schools of those policies falls upon him, enforcement is a school-level issue. As of Friday, Adams said he had taken one phone call from a concerned parent about the issue. 
“Understanding that I’ve always been adamant that our schools are not to be utilized as a political platform, policy speaks directly to staff, both certified and classified, as well as school grounds,” Adams wrote in an email. “After consultation with the principal, it appears that this transpired after the necessary and prior approvals and PTA was not aware of policy relating to ‘political activities’ with staff or on school grounds and accepted the advertisement unknowingly as additional revenue.”
Roberts said she was not aware of the district’s policies regarding political activities and the schools, but that from this point forward, the TES PTA would not solicit or accept any other types of political advertisements or messages.
The district policies and procedures manual does address political activities for certified and classified personnel, stating that “no district employee shall promote, organize, or engage in political activities while performing his/her duties during the work day. Promoting or engaging in political activities shall include, but not be limited to, the following: 1) Encouraging students to adopt or support a particular political position, party or candidate; or 2) using school property or materials to advance the support of a particular political position, party or candidate.”
The manual also addresses advertising in the schools and states that the following are prohibited, except as expressly approved by the superintendent or principal: “No commercial advertising nor distribution of advertising materials shall be allowed in the facilities or on the grounds of school property.” 
However, there is an exception in the advertising policy which states, “Nothing herein shall be construed to prevent advertising in publications which are published by student organizations, PTA/PTO, booster club or other parent groups.”
Political issues are also addressed in the manual under “community use of school facilities.” The section addressing who can use the school facilities states that “principals, following the guidelines contained in this policy, may grant the use of school facilities for purposes that provide demonstrable benefit to the schools or to the community as a whole. Use of school facilities shall not be granted when such use interferes with educational purposes or if such use would be detrimental to the facility’s function as an educational institution. School facilities shall only be used by educational, religious, political, civic or social groups and not for individuals or commercial entities.”
The policy goes on to state that “requests may be submitted by mail, by facsimile, by email or by hand delivery to the main office of the facility which is the subject of the request and requests shall be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the superintendent/designee.”
Adams said he and the Board of Education are now faced with what to do in response to the confusion regarding the policies. He said the answer of how to respond on a district-wide level is not an easy one.
“What I’m to do is promote understanding (of the policies),” he said. “There is the opportunity to have things like what transpired Friday after the administrative approval process has taken place.”