SDUHSD candidates object to political signs in school parking lots

Two San Dieguito Union School District board candidates have questioned the practice of a number of teachers placing campaign signs in their cars while parked at school. Candidate Lucile Lynch brought the issue to the board’s attention following signs spotted at Earl Warren Middle School. Candidate Randy Berholtz said he feels turning a school parking lot into a “campaign battlefield” is unethical, and said he may report it to the San Diego Ethics Commission.

“Can I park my car in that parking lot and put my campaign poster in the window?” Berholtz asked. “No, the only people who can are teachers, and in this case teachers are in a union and the union received a favorable contract from the board majority whose signs are in the teachers' cars parked on public property that taxpayers pay for.”

According to Interim Superintendent Eric Dill, the practice is legal. As soon as Dill heard about campaign signs at Earl Warren on Monday, Sept. 19, he checked with Principal Adam Camacho to ensure there were no signs physically posted at Earl Warren and there wasn’t any political activity happening inside a classroom.

In addition to signs in cars at Earl Warren, signs were visible in several cars at San Dieguito High School Academy before the board meeting on Sept. 15, and one sign was spotted in a car in the Torrey Pines High School parking lot on Sept. 22.

“From a legal standpoint, this is no different than if the employees had placed bumper stickers on their cars advocating a political position,” Dill said. “Teachers generally have been permitted for many decades through case law to wear campaign buttons and other articles of clothing of a political nature provided the message does not disrupt the educational environment.”

Dill said students also share the same rights. 

“Employees are not permitted to post flyers or signs in classrooms or on buildings, or otherwise actively engage in political activities during the hours of employment,” Dill said. “We do, as a practice, remove any political signs that spring up on any of our properties during election seasons. If anyone plants a yard sign along any of our frontage, it doesn't last for very long.”

Dill’s explanation did not satisfy Berholtz.

“Regardless of the likely legality of this practice, the issue remains whether the board majority members running for re-election should condone the use of the district staff’s use of school property to support their own candidacy,” Berholtz said. “Clearly the incumbent board members have no problem with it, but I’d like to think our schools should be free from this type of political grandstanding for the sake of the students and their parents.”

The SDUHSD election features five candidates vying for two spots on the board. Not all of the candidates agree with Berholtz’s position. 

“I’m not sure what Mr. Berholtz sees as unethical,” said candidate Bob Nascenzi. “The First Amendment protects a teacher’s right to express their opinion on matters of public concern outside the classroom. Mr. Dill is correct in stating that case law protects this right as long as it does not provoke a substantial disruption of school activities.” 

Candidate Beth Hergesheimer, the current board president, said she was reminded of instances in the past when student publications produced material that some felt crossed a line but was determined to be within their first amendment rights. 

“In those instances, their instructors, and we as a board, had to permit their free speech rights and choices,” Hergesheimer said. “Our teachers are aware of, and practicing their rights, and as long as they work within permissible boundaries – not disrupting the educational environment – campaign messages in their cars appear to be allowed.”

Candidate Joyce Dalessandro agreed.

“While some might disagree with signs that have appeared in the windows of private vehicles in some school parking lots, it happens that it is within the First Amendment rights of the owners of those cars to display them,” Dalessandro said. “Liking the signs, or not, becomes irrelevant; I certainly wouldn't take a stand in opposition to our Constitution's freedom of expression guarantee.”

Only Lynch agreed with Berholtz that the signs were inappropriate. Lynch said she does not believe school parking lots should be used as “political arenas” and said they should be neutral zones rather than a zone that could create political divide among families and teachers. Lynch said she has advised her supporters not to use school parking lots, but not all have complied. 

“I do believe allowance of this practice creates an appearance of impropriety, given that the incumbent board members are ultimately in charge of hiring and firing decisions and governance of school properties,” Lynch said. “As a parent of a child in the district, I would prefer for schools to be a safe haven for learning, not campaigning.”

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