SEA members accused of violating election law?

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:14

    GOP attorney pushes for sanctions, says SEA meetings should be barred from schools Sparta — An effort by local Sparta Education Association members to rally support from fellow association members for Democratic candidates in the recent District 24 legislative race has come under fire by the GOP candidates and their attorney. Although Republican incumbents Senator Steve Oroho, Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, and Assemblywoman Alison McHose were reelected by a two-to-one margin, their attorney, Michael J. Hanifan, is crying foul. Hanifan said he and the GOP candidates received copies of emails, dated Oct. 10 and Oct. 12, sent by SEA members on the school district’s email account to all staff, inviting them to attend gatherings in school classrooms for the purpose of making phone calls to other members to encourage them to vote for Democratic candidates Ed Selby, Leslie Huhn, and Jim Nye in last week’s election. The emails said the gatherings would take place at the middle school and at the high school on Oct. 11 and Oct. 13 in the late afternoon and early evening and that a script would be provided for attendees to call “Sussex County NJEA (New Jersey Education Association) members to encourage them to vote for the Democratic candidates to replace the present Republicans that are supporting Governor Christie’s policies.” What are the issues? Hanifan said he and his clients believe these actions raise two issues for concern. First, he said the use of the school district’s taxpayer-funded email account for non-school related matters and to support a partisan political agenda is wrong. He said the emails in question did not focus on the children or the education of children, but focused on concerns of the SEA members regarding their pensions, raises, and benefits. Second, Hanifan cited the use of public school property to hold the SEA phone-bank gatherings and said SEA members violated the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act (NJSA 19:44 A - 22.1). He explained their use of a taxpayer-funded facility for a partisan political purpose constitutes an “in-kind contribution” and the SEA should reimburse the Sparta school district for use of the classrooms for this purpose. The superintendent’s response Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton spoke with SEA president Susan Sawey as soon as he learned of the first emails regarding phone bank participation. He reminded her that the district’s email is only to be used for school matters. Sawey then sent a memo to the SEA membership telling them to stop sending this type of message. But another SEA member sent an “all staff” message on Sunday Nov. 6, encouraging members to vote the following Tuesday. The email did not mention specific candidates, even though concerns regarding social security and pension benefit cuts were mentioned. When Morton saw the email on Monday morning, he sent his own “all staff” message telling staff, in no uncertain terms, to confine the use of the district email system to school matters only. However, Morton does not believe it was a violation of any law for the SEA members to use the school classrooms to make calls to other members, and he does not believe the SEA owes the school district any reimbursement for using the facilities. He said the teachers used their own phones and did not use any school materials. He said since the buildings were still open and were not kept open for the SEA, the gatherings did not cost the taxpayers anything. The SEA response SEA president, Susan Sawey, issued a statement on behalf of her Association, saying, “The SEA did not intentionally violate any laws or board policies. The association is permitted, by contract, to use the school buildings for Association business. The members participating in the phone banking were using their own phones, on their own time, and communicating only to NJEA members. There were no students present and no school equipment or materials were used. The 'all staff’ emails should probably not have been sent. The SEA apologizes for this unintentional error, and it will not happen again.” The BOE response Board vice president Dorothy LaBeau said that if Hanifan or the GOP candidates were upset by the emails and the news of impending phone bank gatherings, they could have contacted Dr. Morton immediately to express their concerns and get the facts on board policies regarding SEA activities. She said they could have resolved the matter then and there. LaBeau added, “Instead they chose to wait until after the election to create a press-hysteria and make an issue where there is none. Dr. Morton addressed the email matters immediately and no district funds were spent for the SEA to hold their meetings in the classrooms, so there was no waste of taxpayer dollars.” The matter was raised at the Oct. 24 BOE meeting when former board member Paul Johnson approached board members with a packet of papers he claimed were emails forwarded to him, though he would not name the source. He said the emails were written by teachers, using the school district’s email, asking members to attend meetings and participate in the phone banks to support the Democratic candidates. He said he believed this was a violation of board policy. LaBeau told the Independent Johnson was referring to a resolution and not a policy, which was passed by the board in 2008 and banned the use of school facilities by political action committees. However, LaBeau said resolutions do not carry over to the next board unless they are re-certified in the reorganization meeting and this one was not. Johnson told the Independent he believes the resolution still stands. But Johnson said there is no issue with the SEA using school facilities for their regular meetings and it has been a practice in Sparta for many years. However, he said the main problem in the current SEA matter is the use of school facilities for partisan political purposes. What may come next Hanifan and perhaps one or all of the GOP candidates plan to attend the next BOE meeting on Nov. 28 to discuss possible sanctions against the SEA for their actions and to get confirmation the board is addressing the issue. In addition, Hanifan said the SEA should be banned from using any room in any of the schools for their association meetings. He said, “It’s a misnomer calling the SEA an education association. They are really just a labor union.” He said because of this, the SEA positions are generally adverse to the BOE and to the taxpayers, since the BOE is the employer and the SEA are the employees and the taxpayers foot the bill. By using taxpayer funded facilities to promote the campaigns of candidates who are sympathetic to the SEA (and NJEA) agenda, Hanifan said the Sparta teachers stepped over the line. He said, “Political activism using public facilities is not allowed.” Hanifan said, “My candidates (clients) were, for better or worse, harmed because they weren’t given the same advantage.” He emphasized that Oroho, Chiusano, and McHose are not anti-teacher, but they want to make sure taxpayers are not flipping the bill for a group advocating for a particular position. Morton said the SEA has traditionally used classrooms for meetings, adding that he does not know of another school district in New Jersey that doesn’t allow their teachers’ association to meet in the schools. He said, “Besides, this right is provided for them under 'Article 12, Association Rights’ in their contract, which allows them to use school facilities for meetings and the district’s mail delivery system for communications.” He said this matter should now be put to rest and not belabored by Hanifan or the GOP candidates. “First of all,” he said, “the SEA has gotten the message loud and clear and I doubt this issue will come up again.” Morton added, “But it is disappointing that our elected officials would consider creating a legal matter over this which could generate legal expenses that come out of the taxpayers’ pockets and take funds away from Sparta’s students. It is also surprising they would make such a public issue against Sparta’s outstanding teachers when the SEA was one of only 13 local unions out of nearly 600 in the state that stepped up in 2010 and took a wage freeze, as Governor Christie asked, and went against the direction of the NJEA to do so. It seems to me, this is being promulgated by the same few who have for years tried to hurt the Sparta public schools to further their own agendas. When will people realize that damaging the reputation of the public schools is harmful to the overall reputation of Sparta? How is that helpful? We are all trying to do the best we can for our students.”