Mitt Romney visit raises new questions about politics in Pasco schools

LAND O'LAKES — Alex Sink was miffed.

As the Democratic candidate for Florida governor two years ago, Sink asked to rent a classroom at Gulf Middle School in Pasco County to film a campaign ad. The School Board flatly rejected her, with board member Joanne Hurley saying the schools should not "become a backdrop for campaigns of any kind."

Then Sink learned this week that the same school district would allow Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to rent the Land O'Lakes High School football stadium for a Saturday evening rally.

"If it applies to me, a Democrat, it should apply to anyone," Sink said Thursday. "If it's a policy, it should be applied consistently."

The appearance of a double standard did not escape the notice of United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb. "I believe the School Board is definitely playing partisan politics," said Webb, a vocal supporter of President Barack Obama.

She suggested that, in its efforts to play up the event, the district and its schools have violated several board policies relating to political activities. In the aftermath of a national "brouhaha" over partisan Democratic speeches made this fall to Gulf High School students, Webb said, the administration and board might have thought to tread more lightly.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino agreed with the decision two years ago denying Sink's request to film a campaign ad at Gulf Middle. She told the School Board then that the district had opened schools during non-student hours for U.S. Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite and Gus Bilirakis. But those were for presentations on public matters, such as veterans benefits and student loans, not for campaign activities.

"It was being utilized for our citizens," Fiorentino said in 2010. "That is the difference."

She and the other board members did not see any connection on Thursday between the Sink and Romney requests.

"The No. 1 difference was (Sink) wanted to shoot a commercial in the school," Fiorentino said. Romney "wants to rent the facility."

Hurley said that when the board denied Sink's rental request, it did so based on precedent. But with today's "hyper-partisan" atmosphere, she continued, large events with a political theme will bring the board criticism whether it approves or rejects them.

She noted that the district welcomed Vice President Joe Biden to Oakstead Elementary School in October 2011. Biden came to tout legislation the administration was pursuing to support teaching jobs. The district also had U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to Lacoochee Elementary School in August 2011, she added, where he "touted things that were part of his agenda."

Nelson, a Democrat, was working on economic development issues for the downtrodden section of northeast Pasco County.

"We welcomed them even though they both clearly had partisan messages as part of the reason they came," Hurley said, supporting the superintendent's decision to allow the Romney campaign to use the Land O'Lakes High stadium as part of the same philosophy.

She was not aware of some of the other concerns that Webb raised in conjunction with the event, and said she would look into them.

The first complaint was that the Land O'Lakes High School website included a direct link to the Romney campaign website, where people could go to get tickets to Saturday's event. The school district's Internet policy forbids any links to websites that support or oppose a candidate for public office.

School Board member Steve Luikart called the superintendent's office to complain about the link.

"That has to be changed," Luikart said. "It's not supposed to be there. I was told we were not going to promote it."

He learned that the school was being inundated with calls for tickets, which it did not have, so it directed people to the campaign site. Principal Ric Mellin included the link on his school Twitter account, which shows up on the school website, at 6:31 p.m. Wednesday, after the school had closed.

Mellin removed the link at 2:49 p.m. Thursday.

The second complaint involved permitting the Mitchell High School marching band to perform at the rally, which will help the band raise money for its program. Luikart also raised the red flag on that, wondering if it was allowed.

District policy on public student performances says such activities are allowed when the "circumstances of the event are non-political in nature."

"Our band members know this is not an endorsement of a candidate and totally voluntary," Mitchell principal Jim Michaels told the Times via email. He referred all other questions to the district office.

The concern over students volunteering for political campaigns went further. Both Mellin and Sunlake principal Garry Walthall sent emails to staff members on district accounts saying that the Republican National Convention was seeking student volunteers for the Romney rally, and giving a contact for those who were interested.

Assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose acknowledged the letter was poorly worded. The district's policy on political activities forbids employees from soliciting support for any political candidates during work hours or on district property. The policy further bans candidates or their representatives from doing the same.

Pasco eSchool principal Joanne Glenn had to apologize to students in 2010 for forwarding a volunteer opportunity from the Rick Scott for Governor campaign.

If a teacher pushed a political agenda on students, Webb argued, "he or she would be fired."

Luikart said he wanted to ensure that district policies are applied consistently. He pointed directly to the superintendent's office to make it happen, noting all this is occurring between board meetings and the superintendent runs the day-to-day business of the district.

"I can call and voice my opinion," he said. "The rest of it is in her lap."

Webb said she expected to hold some type of "counter-event" to the Romney rally on Saturday.

"We just cannot let this go unchecked," she said. "If the board had been able to approve or disapprove" Romney's rally, "based on their actions of two years ago I would certainly hope they would have disapproved it. That there is a difference between a commercial and holding a rally is not credible."

On that point, Sink agreed.

"We found another place," she said of her campaign ad effort. "Now it's Mitt Romney the Republican. I guess they don't have a problem with that."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Mitt Romney visit raises new questions about politics in Pasco schools 10/25/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 26, 2012 9:17am]

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