State Sen. Mike Bell says he will introduce legislation in the 2013 Nashville session to ban use of public school property owned by any government entity in Tennessee to promote the adoption or rejection of a referendum on the ballot.
“I have been contacted by many constituents who have complained about the use of public school property to promote a referendum on the ballot,” Bell said. “Tennessee law is currently unclear. While it specifically bans the practice for state-owned property, there is some ambiguity as to whether or not it is prohibited where state funds are used but a city or county government owns the property. Then there is the question of allowing the opposing side to also advertise their viewpoints. We don’t need to let our schoolyards become a political battleground. My legislation will make it clear that school property cannot be used to advertise for or against a referendum.”
Cleveland City Schools and Bradley County Schools both have posted messages on school marquees urging approval of the referendum. The messages were removed from schools’ marquees to make room for registration information and because early voting had begun. The messages are disappearing from county schools with the approach of the new school year.
Cleveland City Schools Director Dr. Martin Ringstaff said removing the referendum message had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the wheel tax.
“We took them down to make room for registration information and the election cycle had begun, and we wanted to make sure we were not in violation of election laws,” he said. “I fully support using the signs to promote the wheel tax.”
Bradley County Board of Education Chairman Charlie Rose expressed a similar viewpoint. He said the proposed legislation would prevent schools from taking a position on actions that could improve education.
“Personally, I think it is important that we as a school system and as citizens should be allowed to promote things we believe would be beneficial to education,” he said. “We are citizens too. We should be able to voice our opinion.”
Bell said it is unlawful to use public buildings or facilities for meetings or campaign activity in support of any particular candidate, party or measure unless equal access is provided to all sides. Public buildings and facilities are defined as those owned and supported by public money appropriated from the state treasury.
“This is not just about the referendum currently before Bradley County voters,” Bell said. “You must also consider future measures. There are many other ways that those who are for or against a referendum can get out their message. Advocating for a referendum using school property is not a good practice and this legislation will clear it up once and for all.”
Ringstaff and Rose both said using the signs to promote the wheel tax is not against state law nor is it against school policy.
The identical city and county policies state, “No part of the school system, including the facilities, the name, the staff and the students, shall be used for advertising or promoting the interests of any commercial, political or other non-school agency or organization except that ...”
One of the exceptions is, “The school may, upon approval of the director of schools, cooperate with any governmental agency in promoting activities which advance the education or other best interests of the students.”
Rose said there is a big difference between supporting the referendum written specifically for education and endorsing a candidate.
Ringstaff said it is mind-boggling to him that people think the city and county systems wouldn’t support the referendum, because educators want better schools. He said no one has addressed overcrowding and growth.
“No one argues that,” he said. “The argument is about how money was dealt with in the past. At what point do we address the real problem? I hate that elected officials feel like they have to stand up against us.”