NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County School Board members left their Oct. 2 meeting thinking they had sufficiently handled complaints about political activities in several high schools.
They ordered an investigation into how a partisan speaker supporting President Barack Obama's re-election got into Gulf High School classrooms in September. They pledged to hold anyone who did anything wrong accountable. They tried not to exacerbate the situation by either letting more speakers in, despite requests by Republicans and Libertarians, or by changing policy without having all the details in hand.
Since then, they've been pilloried as "gutless," "gestapo" and worse in emails spurred by angry talk radio segments and stories on the conservative Fox News radio and television national networks. Greta Van Susteren featured the issue Tuesday on her nightly prime-time On the Record program.
"Is this a bad lesson in political science?" Van Susteren said to open the four-minute report that prominently featured Pasco Republican state committeeman Bill Bunting. (See the video at tinyurl.com/92xtjl5)
"Tonight many parents in Florida are outraged," she continued. "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?"
Pasco School Board member Alison Crumbley, who has received loads of what she calls "hate mail" over the matter, decried the criticisms as being based on misinformation at best.
"The message that is being put out is not entirely accurate," Crumbley said. "We're cooperating with (law enforcement) entirely. We don't have any punitive powers here. We've done all we can."
She and board member Steve Luikart have separately responded to some of the letter writers, trying to clarify what's been happening without getting drawn further into the political battle themselves. Both have pointed to the superintendent's office as having the primary responsibility to deal with the daily activities in the schools.
"The Superintendent will be reviewing the District Internal Investigation and will be bringing to the Board any and all discipline action of those employees that have violated District Policy," Luikart wrote. "Under Florida Statute that is the Superintendent's responsibility."
Yet district officials didn't offer a comment to the most highly visible story, that on Van Susteren's program, leaving Bunting and "outraged parent" Lynda Mininni as the voices to explain what occurred in the schools.
The absence irked Crumbley.
"I feel like we've been thrown under the bus," she said. Superintendent "Heather (Fiorentino) has left the building and the state. Summer (Robertson) is gone. … Who are they going to go to in the district?"
Fiorentino, whose term expires Nov. 20, was attending a conference in Texas while Fox News compiled its report. Robertson resigned as district spokeswoman a week ago. Assistant superintendent John Mann, who spoke to Fox News radio, did not comment for the television report and told the Times through a secretary that he had no official comment during the ongoing investigation.
Bunting suggested that the district is "ducking the issue" by avoiding talking about how a volunteer from Organizing for America, a Democratic group working to re-elect Obama, could speak to Gulf students while he was refused twice.
OFA volunteers held voter registration drives at other schools, but without imparting partisan messages, according to email correspondence. Five schools rejected OFA's requests to come onto campus, while one — Pasco High — did not receive any request.
In some instances, including at Gulf High, it appeared that someone knew the volunteers were from Organizing for America. Under state law and district policy, such groups are allowed on campus, as long as they are conducting a nonpartisan voter registration drive. Gulf social studies department chairwoman Claudia Alwood fired an email to OFA regional organizer Allison Bryan complaining the day after the pro-Obama speech.
"I am very concerned over what happened at Gulf High regarding what we thought was to be an objective, voter registration talk," Alwood wrote. "It is my recommendation to the administration … that we no longer allow your group to speak at Gulf High."
OFA leaders apologized to the school district and said the over-zealous volunteer had been released.
Seeking to provide balance, a teacher at Gulf High invited Bunting to offer the Republican perspective. Then Bunting was uninvited, re-invited and uninvited again as the district decided it must adhere to its policy on keeping partisan speech out of the classrooms.
Meanwhile, there was confusion at other schools over which group was behind the voter registration efforts. District social studies supervisor Paula Lesko reported in an email that Fivay and Hudson high school leaders told her three people had been at their schools registering students.
"In at least one case, those individuals said they were from the Pasco Supervisor of Elections Office," Lesko wrote. "Unfortunately, the SOE said that is not the case."
Elections supervisor Brian Corley told Fox News that such misrepresentation could lead to criminal charges.
"It is a violation of Florida law to use fraudulent means or deceptive practices to register individuals to vote," Corley said.
He stressed that the investigation needed to be complete before drawing any conclusions.
School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he hoped that the political sniping would not obscure the more important issues facing the school district. First, he said, district leaders must determine whether anyone got onto campus through lying and misrepresentation.
That's a huge safety concern that the superintendent's office already has attempted to tackle with stern reminders to schools to check visitors for identification and appointments.
Second, he said, the district must stay true to its academic mission, which includes following policies keeping partisanship out of classrooms. Just because one person made comments inappropriately does not mean the district must open its doors to all competing points of view, he said.
"This was never intended to be a political science class on the pros and cons of different political parties," Alfonso said. "This was purely an academic lesson on the merits of registering to vote."
County Republican leaders, including Bunting, have raised concerns, though, that what happened in Pasco might have occurred elsewhere. And in a tight election in battleground Florida, it could swing the results.
They've filed complaints in several state government and law enforcement offices, and are querying other counties to determine the extent of Organizing for America's involvement in schools.
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.