Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Partisan speech violated Pasco schools policy, but blame remains unclear

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco school district policies were violated at Gulf High School when a volunteer from Organizing for America made partisan speeches to students in September, a district investigation found.

Exactly who broke the rules remains up for determination, as the district review uncovered conflicting versions of how events unfolded, district employee relations director Kevin Shibley said.

"There are some critical points in there where there is a lot of inconsistency from the testimony," he told the Pasco School Board on Tuesday evening after submitting his report.

Jennifer Dixon, the social studies teacher whose class received speeches favoring President Barack Obama, told Shibley that she instructed OFA volunteer Sandra Mullins to provide a strictly nonpartisan presentation on voter registration.

Mullins told Shibley that Dixon encouraged her to present the Democratic point of view, telling students that a Republican speaker would offer a counterpoint in the future.

Dixon invited GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting to present the Republican case — then Gulf High officials uninvited him, citing the district's policy on keeping partisan politics out of the classroom. The story drew national media attention, with conservative commentators objecting the Republicans weren't given equal time.

When the story first broke last month, there was some question as to whether the OFA volunteers misrepresented themselves as county elections workers in order to gain access to the campus. The school district investigation found that wasn't the case: The teacher knew in advance that the speaker was from Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic Party.

Shibley did not find any policy violations with OFA's appearance at seven other county high schools where it registered voters without any known incidents of partisanship. He did, however, note the tables being run by OFA "does raise the specter of impropriety."

These other voter registration efforts took place primarily on open house and school registration days.

A handful of people, including Bunting, came to the School Board meeting Tuesday evening urging swift action against any wrongdoing.

"If laws were broken, they truly should be punished," said Don Fletcher of Dade City. "That is the only message for students."

Board members said they would continue to support any further investigations by state agencies, that are still looking into whether election laws were violated.

Board member Allen Altman said he wanted to have district policy improved to ensure that similar situations do not occur again.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the board that she recommended additional training for the staff in how to deal with elections and politics.

She stressed, however, that the main problem "occurred in one school, in one classroom."

Fiorentino said she would forward Shibley's report to the Division of Elections. She also planned to look into any other political-related complaints as they come in.

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