Charter school debate prompts Lenox to clarify rules on political activity

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LENOX >> The hotly contested statewide ballot question that would authorize charter school expansion has created local fallout as some school district staffers have gone public with their opposition.

The Lenox Education Association, representing teachers and other employees, is among the unions opposing a "yes" vote on Ballot Question 2 at the Nov. 8 general election.

If approved, the question would give the state authority to lift the cap on new charter schools, allowing up to 12 new ones or expansions of existing charters each year. Priority would be granted to new charter schools proposed for lower-performing districts.

Superintendent Timothy Lee told the School Committee this week that members of the union asked to hand out pamphlets during Thursday's Back to School Night at Morris Elementary School on the controversial ballot question.

In addition, parents visiting some classrooms at the Sept. 15 Back to School event at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School spotted posters opposing the question. Some staffers wore buttons and stickers expressing the same viewpoint.

Based on research from multiple legal sources, Lee outlined the ground rules for political activity by school district employees while "on the clock" during the school day or at required evening events.

Among the activities not permitted is posting political messages in a public building, either pro or against a ballot question or candidate, the superintendent pointed out.

Wearing of political buttons or stickers is allowed "as a matter of self-expression," Lee said, citing state Ethics Commission guidelines, and is not even considered significant political expression.

The distribution of pamphlets on school grounds by employees is also allowed, according to the legal sources, because "they're not acting as public employees, they're acting as independent citizens," Lee said. Their rights include "assembling to state their political views," he added.

However, he emphasized, public employees are restricted from promoting or engaging in political activities during their work hours.

Outside the Morris Elementary building on a Back to School night, Lee said, pamphlets may be handed out by any private citizen, including union members who are not employees of that school assigned to attend the event, as long they don't impede traffic or people entering the building.

Anyone who is going to be on school property handing out anything is expected to inform the administration first, he added.

The district's legal counsel also notified Lee that, if asked, those handing out political pamphlets have to make it clear that they are not representing Lenox Public Schools but are distributing information as private citizens.

The rules also apply to anyone representing an opposing view — in this case, supporting a "yes" vote on Ballot Question 2.

School Committee member Robert Munch voiced concern over setting a precedent "that allows all political issues in the universe guaranteed space at events we host for parents. I'm having trouble seeing how we can have the [Massachusetts Teachers Association] give out pamphlets at Morris at this event and also not run the risk of someone handing out pro-marijuana ballot issue pamphlets."

"I'm uncomfortable with it," he added. "I think it undermines our event where the parents are there to talk about their children."

Lee responded that "our school facilities exist as a "limited open forum," which means approval of the option to come and present or hand out literature or whatever it might be on a variety of viewpoints. It's very rare that somebody takes the opportunity to do that, and they must be subject to certain stipulations."

The alternative, he pointed out, would be for the School Committee to declare the Lenox Public Schools a "closed forum," but "that's not a path I suggest we go down because then we're denying the opportunity for a lot of healthy civic discussion."

Lee listed the sources for his recommendations: Massachusetts General Law provisions on political activity by teachers, a state Ethics Commission advisory document on political activity by public employees, the school district's policy manual as well as guidance from the Lenox district's legal counsel.

He described his presentation to the School Committee as "an administrative decision that requires an interpretation of policy" allowing individuals expressing a political position the right to assemble on public property.

"We can't deny them, but we can put stipulations on it that under no circumstances will somebody acting as a public employee who's currently at work be permitted to do that," Lee told the committee.

"All public buildings need to remain neutral in terms of political messages," he stated in a follow-up memo to the staff issued on Wednesday.

He also pointed out that "restrictions on school staff around political activity do not mean that student speech around political issues has to be restricted or limited. If individual teachers provide for student discussion on political issues, the expression of all perspectives and viewpoints should be encouraged."

In such discussions, Lee urged staff members to remain neutral, "taking care not to support or disparage one perspective or belief over another."

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on Thursday that 124 school committees statewide have adopted positions opposing the expansion of charter schools.

In Berkshire County, they include Adams-Cheshire, Berkshire Hills, Clarksburg, Lee, Lenox, North Adams, Pittsfield, Savoy, Southern Berkshire and Williamstown.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

Question 2 ...

• Voters are asked if they support giving Massachusetts the authority to lift the cap on charter schools. Currently, there's a limit of 120 charter schools allowed to operate in the state; there are currently 78 active charters, including BART in Adams.

• A "Yes" vote grants the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the authority to lift the cap, allowing up to 12 new charter schools or expansions of existing charters each year. If passed, the law would take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

• Priority would be given to charters that open in lower-performing districts. New charters and charter expansions approved under this law would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them and the amount of local school districts' spending allocated to them.

• A "No" vote would leave the current limit in place.


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