Saturday, April 21, 2018
Education

Pasco School Board closes door on partisan speakers at schools

LAND O'LAKES — Republicans and Libertarians made their pitch Tuesday to be allowed to speak to Gulf High School students, where Democrats inadvertently were permitted to make partisan comments to some classes in late September.

The Pasco School Board didn't open the door.

"We do need to follow our board policy that we have in place about not allowing partisan politics into the classroom," vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said.

The fact that representatives of Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic Party, found their way into Gulf by insinuating they were part of the county elections office biannual voter registration project did not sway the board. Members said that deception should be fully investigated, and anyone who did something wrong should be held accountable.

But it did not establish the need to create an open political forum in front of students, board member Steve Luikart said: "Two wrongs do not make a right."

They took their lead from board attorney Dennis Alfonso, who advised that two district policies ban classroom political activity. The purpose of voter registration drives, which had been planned with speakers from the county elections office, was to promote the merits of voting, Alfonso said, and not to debate presidential politics.

"The fact that somebody had access to students and unilaterally changed it to a partisan debate doesn't change the fact that the board has policies," he said.

That meant that GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting, who had already been invited, uninvited and reinvited to speak to the students was again uninvited. It also shut down requests from local Libertarians to offer their point of view.

"I was concerned the way to fix something that was wrong was to create more wrongs," Alfonso said.

Bunting, who appeared before the board, sounded more upset that the Democrats got in than that he was left out. He criticized the schools that let in Organizing for America volunteers, noting that at least one school had the wherewithal to recognize they weren't scheduled to appear and shouldn't be allowed in.

Organizing for America speakers were able to enter Hudson, Fivay and Sunlake high schools in addition to Gulf. None of the other schools reported partisan speeches. Administrators at both Mitchell and Land O'Lakes high schools turned away the volunteers.

But if they got into four Pasco schools, Bunting mused, how many other schools around Florida might they have entered to express their views? "This can swing an election," he said, calling for a quick investigation into the situation so that prosecutions can take place as necessary.

He planned to bring up the issue with the state GOP at a meeting this weekend.

Representatives from the local Libertarian Party executive board focused on the need to allow all voices into the debate.

"We are asking for our ideals to be heard in the schools as well," local party treasurer Danielle Alexandre told the board.

Michael Malterer, another leader in the local Libertarian Party, acknowledged the difficulty the board faced.

"No one wants to be in the situation. We understand, this sucks," he said. "No one intended for this to happen. We want to make it right."

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said her staff is investigating exactly what happened to allow partisan speakers into the schools. She said all schools already have received notifications to improve their attention to vetting visitors. But questions remain.

"We are working on security issues to make sure that schools follow our procedures," Fiorentino said. "We are as upset as anyone."

She asked board members if they wanted to change any policies in the wake of the fiasco. They said they'd wait until they had all the investigation results before taking that step. They did support tightening procedures as Fiorentino suggested.

United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb encouraged the board to keep the students in mind during its deliberations.

"As an educator . . . I am extremely aware that our students are a captive audience," Webb said. "I appreciate the board thinking about what we subject our students to, especially speakers."

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

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