Thursday, April 26, 2018
Education

Pasco schools ensnared in voter registration imbroglio

NEW PORT RICHEY — This week's dustup at Gulf High School was resolved, it seemed, when local GOP leader Bill Bunting was reinvited to speak after being blocked from the campus.

Then came questions over who was gaining access to speak at Pasco schools, and whether other visitors had misrepresented themselves, and why school workers didn't vet them more thoroughly. The visitors who showed up at Gulf High to talk about voter registration efforts weren't from the county elections office, as school officials thought, but from Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic Party supporting President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. And it turns out they made their way into three other high schools — Hudson, Fivay and Sunlake — without question.

Now local Republican Party leaders are calling for an investigation, an official with Organizing for America-Florida has apologized for the mess and a Pasco Libertarian is insisting on getting his slice of equal time.

School superintendent Heather Fiorentino lamented the spiral of events.

"It is unfortunate that any political party or organization would seek to use our schools to further their own agenda, and cause a distraction from our primary mission of educating students," Fiorentino said Thursday in an email to the Times. "This issue has already required the dedication of limited staff time and caused an interruption to our normal workload, especially at one of our high schools. It's time for this issue to be put to rest and to allow our educators the opportunity to concentrate efforts on their primary mission of educating students."

The situation came to light Tuesday, after Bunting complained he had been asked to speak at Gulf to counter a partisan Democratic presentation, but then was uninvited by principal Kim Davis. His name did not appear on the list of approved speakers for the district's biannual voter registration drive in cooperation with the Pasco elections office, she said, so he could not come.

Davis did not know that one of her teachers invited Bunting, a state committeeman for the Republican Party, after someone else came into her classroom, supposedly in conjunction with the voter registration effort, and then spoke in favor of Obama.

As the district tried to answer Bunting's concerns, officials determined that Organizing for America volunteers had entered several other Pasco high schools to encourage teens to vote.

The district has a nonpartisan voter registration drive every two years, and the school workers were "under the impression" that the visitors came from the elections office and so they let them in, said district spokeswoman Summer Robertson. Only an assistant principal at Mitchell High questioned the visitors' lack of a scheduled appointment or proper identification and turned them away, Robertson said.

Once in the schools, most talked about voting. Pro-Obama speeches came only at Gulf.

Robertson said David Pearl, regional voter protection director for Organizing for America-Florida, called her office to apologize for the pro-Obama speech to students and to say the volunteer in question had been released.

Pearl, whom supervisor of elections Brian Corley also has contacted for a meeting, did not return calls from the Times seeking comment. Volunteers from the organization had emailed Corley's office in the spring asking to have access to the schools for a voter registration drive on Sept. 17, and assuring him that it would be done "without blue or red uniforms." Corley declined, saying his office doesn't collaborate with partisan groups.

His office conducted its own planned school voter registration drives on Wednesday and Thursday.

Corley provided what little information he had to Pasco Republican Executive Committee lawyer Jim Mathieu, who said he wants to find out exactly who spoke to the students and how they got inside. He said he would be looking at whether the visitors violated the state's third-party voter registration act, as well as what deceptions they might have made in accessing schools without proper credentials.

"We intend to notify all appropriate authorities," Mathieu said. "'Sorry' doesn't feed the chickens with us."

Local Libertarians were rankled, too: They also want to speak to classes.

Davis offered to allow the Libertarians to distribute printed materials to interested students. But she told Libertarian Executive Board member Michael Malterer that the school did not have enough instructional time to hand over to political speeches.

That did not mollify Malterer.

"It seems odd that they would have the courtesy to invite the Pasco Republicans but not invite the only other political party registered to do business in Pasco — the Libertarian Party," he said in an email to the Times.

And he's not planning to let this go, either.

If there's no resolution by Tuesday's School Board meeting, Malterer said, "we will have no choice but to find out what the courts have to say about this."

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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