The education funding battle: The right fight for the wrong reasons

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Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

As teachers’ unions across the state geared up for the “State of Emergency Week of Action” May 9 to 13 to protest state cuts in education funding, local parent Michael Robertson was fighting a different sort of battle.

Robertson charged that the Del Mar Union School District misused public resources – including telecommunications equipment, computer servers, school property, supplies, copiers and school databases – to improperly advocate for political positions.

“DMUSD is using school resources in an attempt to influence politics which is wrong,” he said in an email, citing a robo-call from the district’s superintendent “pleading that I join a protest to ‘protect our kids.’”

In addition to the automated phone call, he offered as further evidence an email addressed to “Del Mar Hills families” from the Del Mar Hills Elementary School PTA president which read in part: “During the week of May 9 through May 13, the teachers, administrators, school board and parents of the DMUSD will jointly participate in activities to focus attention on California’s ‘State of Emergency.’ The purpose is to raise awareness of the serious cuts facing education and to pressure California legislators to return funding priority to our schools.”

The email asked parents to meet in the teachers’ lounge on May 9 and make calls during lunchtime to legislators, “urging them to support tax extensions, preventing deeper cuts to California public schools.” Lunch, she wrote, will be served.

Fuming, Robertson claims the DMUSD is violating the law, citing California Education Code section 7054 which prohibits school districts from engaging in political advocacy using public resources.

Section 7054(a) reads that no school district funds, services, supplies or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate.

However, 7054 goes on to say that nothing shall prohibit the use of public resources as long as the activities are authorized by the Constitution or California law and “the information provided constitutes a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure.”

Section 7054(c) states that any violation of this section shall be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by imprisonment or a fine, or both.

Whether or not Del Mar (or any other California school district for that matter, as many of them engaged in similar actions) violated 7054 of the Calif. Education Code is debatable.

Technically, the district’s efforts did not urge the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, as prohibited in 7054, but it may have advocated for a particular political position. Here is the full text of the automated call:

“Hi, this is Superintendent Jim Peabody calling with an important message about budget issues facing the Del Mar Union School District and ALL California schools. School districts throughout California are suffering while we continue to wait for a state budget. Our schools and communities cannot tolerate any more budget cuts nor can we afford to continuing [sic] waiting for a state budget.

“During the week of May 9-13, all educators, parents and students in the state are fighting back with a grassroots campaign calling on lawmakers to resolve the state budget crisis now. Look for our Del Mar teachers, administrators, parents and board members at your children’s school – they will have important messages about what YOU can do to help.”

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