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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Pasco's battle over political speeches in schools goes national



Last week, the Pasco School Board called for an investigation into exactly how speakers from Organizing for America, a Democratic group backing President Obama's reelection, got into area high schools, where at least one volunteer made partisan speeches to students. They asked for time to learn the details before making any policy pronouncements, making clear that they would hold accountable any wrongdoers.

The story didn't end there, though. Instead, it became the hot topic for local talk shows and, most recently, the conservative national press. Fox Radio ran a story Tuesday morning, and Fox News featured the issue on its Greta Van Susteren show Tuesday night.

"Is this a bad lesson in political science?" Van Susteren said to open the segment. "Tonight many parents in Florida are outraged. Why? One school district allowed a pro-Obama group to hold voter registration drives and give speeches to classes. But get this. The same school district denied the Romney campaign the chance to do the same. So what is really going on? And were any laws broken? Griff Jenkins hit the ground in Florida to find out."

You can see the full transcript from the piece below. View the video here.

What you won't see, though, is any response from the Pasco school district. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino was out of town yesterday, and other district officials declined to talk to the network. That left the Republican Party leaders to shape the discussion, and that they did, demanding satisfaction for wrongs they perceived in the schools allowing Democrats in — if the Dems didn't deceive the district to gain access, as some have alleged — and also for denying the GOP equal time.

While the district continues its investigation, the Pasco Republicans have filed complaints with state agencies at the same time other county GOP leaders have started looking into whether the same thing happened in their communities. Instead of quieting down, the story looks more likely to heat up as Florida remains a key battleground state leading to the November election. Watch for more. 

Greta Van Susteren: Is this a bad lesson in political science? Tonight many parents in Florida are outraged. Why? One school district allowed a pro-Obama group to hold voter registration drives and give speeches to classes. But get this. The same school district denied the Romney campaign the chance to do the same. So what is really going on? And were any laws broken? Griff Jenkins hit the ground in Florida to find out.

Reporter: Here in Pasco County, Florida, volunteers from President Obama's Organizing for America gained access on multiple occasions to high schools to register voters. Here at Gulf High School, that happened last month. Brian Corley, who is the supervisor of elections here in Pasco County, says laws may have been broken. A big part of the story is whether or not folks represented themselves as part of your staff from the elections office, or whether they identified themselves as from Organizing for America and then were still allowed onto the school property.

"Well, if they represented themselves as being with Organizing for America and went on school property, that's an issue in and of itself. However, it is a violation of Florida law to use fraudulent means or deceptive practices to register individuals to vote. That is a criminal violation. So if that is the case, where individuals indicated they were with the supervisor of elections office, that would be a criminal charge. So that will come out as a result of the investigation. It's just too early to ascertain that at this point."

Reporter: Bill Bunting is the Republican state committeeman here in Pasco County. Bill, you received a message that put much of this into play. Tell us what happened.

"Well, a teacher from Gulf High School was nice enough to give me a call and tell me the Obama campaign was in her school registering voters under the guise of Organization for America. And they came in under false pretenses because when they came into the school they said they represented the supervisor of elections office, Brian Corley. And therein lies the problem. And she was nice enough to invite me to speak, and then subsequently the night before I was to speak I got a call from the principal Ms. Davis and said that I would not be allowed to speak."

Reporter: So what reason were you given to not come and speak?

"I wasn't really given a clear definition from Ms. Davis as to why I was not. Then I subsequently was reinvited to speak. And then I got a call from the superintendent of schools, Heather Fiorentino. And that was 11 hours before I was to speak and she said, 'Well, we can't have you come in and speak on the advice of our attorney. Because one group came in and they shouldn't have been there, it was wrong what they did, it was illegal.' I appeared before the school board and the attorney Dennis Alfonso met with me separately and he also said, 'It looks like there may have been crimes here committed so we don't want you to speak, we don't want to bring a second party in.'"

Reporter: To your knowledge, how many instances do you suppose this could have happened? Is it just the one at Gulf, or is it elsewhere?

"No, it's not the one at Gulf. We know it happened at Fivay High School. I heard from a parent there whose daughter also was approached in the cafeteria, who was a senior. We also know that it happened in Hudson High School and it happened at Sunlake High School."

Reporter: Lynda Mininni is a parent of a student in one of the schools here in Pasco County where Organizing for America came and met with students. Lynda, tell us what happened.

"Well, from what I know, we thought they were poll workers that were coming to the lunch room trying to get students to register to vote. But it turns out it was from the Obama campaign. They are Organizing for America workers. These people would come in the lunch room with the clipboards and on the back of the clipboards they had Obama-Biden stickers on the clipboards, you know, looking for voters to get registered."

Greta: And now the response from the Obama campaign. In a statement, an Obama for America spokesperson is saying, "This incident represents a simple misunderstanding regarding a volunteer who is no longer with our organization. All our volunteers go through a rigorous and extensive training process to ensure they comply with all laws when registering voters. A month ago, immediately after the incident in question, the volunteer apologized to the school. As the Pasco County schools superintendent has indicated in the press, the school has moved on from this, and so have we." 

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 1:23pm]


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