Kids, Schools, and Politics: Protecting the Integrity of Taxpayer Resources

A quick quiz: Which of the following took place in Minnesota during the 2004 election cycle?

a. Political fliers were sent home from school in the backpacks of third graders.
b. The teachers’ union sued over its desire to use teacher mailboxes to distribute political materials.
c. After telling the public that it would need a referendum to cover a budget deficit, a district discovered it had a $300,000 budget surplus a month before the election – but neglected to share this information with the public.
d. A school district’s bulk mail permit was used to mail a piece of union literature supporting the election of two DFL state House candidates.
e. School children reported acts of political advocacy by their teachers during class time
f. All of the above

If your answer was (f) “All of the above,” you are correct. The incidents listed took place in (a) North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, (b) Lakeville, (c) Crookston, (d) Eden Prairie, and (e) Woodbury.

Although some of these incidents were later reported to be inadvertent, they nonetheless raise questions about whether sufficient safeguards are in place to protect public resources and our school children from unwarranted political advocacy. As a result of these and other egregious examples of the abuse of taxpayer dollars for political purposes, Center of the American Experiment has released a study on the issue which recommends several common sense remedies.

Analysis of the laws and regulations across the country has shown that, in many states, the use of public resources for partisan political purposes is not just unethical – it is illegal. A comparison of Minnesota statutes with the laws of other states indicates that our laws have some weaknesses that must be addressed.

For example, Minnesota law states that a public official cannot compel a person to join a political organization, make a contribution, or “take part in a political activity”—but it does not address a public employee’s willful involvement with political activities while on state time or with the use of state resources.

Granted, this law is amplified in the administrative procedures issued by the Department of Employee Relations, which notes that state employees “may take an active part in political management and political campaigns, but not on state time or premises,” but it must be noted that these administrative procedures are applicable only to state employees. With seventy-five percent of public employees in Minnesota belonging to local governments and school districts, only twenty-five percent of public employees are covered by these administrative procedures.

Furthermore, other explicit prohibitions that commonly apply to all public employees in other states (having to do, for example, with state time, state supplies, or state-owned equipment), apply by law only to the executive branch in Minnesota. Since the executive branch (which includes the Minnesota State Colleges and University system) makes up only fourteen percent of public employees in this state, eighty-six percent of our public employees are not expressly prohibited by law from using public resources for political purposes.

With regard to e-mail, again our law is behind the times. Although various state commissioners are called upon to issue “a statewide policy on the use of electronic mail and other forms of electronic communications,” this policy is again only applicable to executive branch employees. And while authorities in the legislative and judicial branches are required to have e-mail policies in place, the only criteria mandated for such policies are those that stipulate parameters for employees’ personal use and “other issues.” This loose language is out of step with that of other states which explicitly protects taxpayer resources, such as computers and Internet access, from political uses.

In Lakeville, district policies that kept John Kerry literature out of school mailboxes also kept the high school band from playing for President Bush when he was in town for a campaign visit. A good policy must be applied consistently to be credible and fair.

Thomas Jefferson said: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” To address this and be responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, we recommend that the Minnesota legislature examine our laws against the statutes of other states and move to strengthen prohibitions on the use of taxpayer resources for political purposes.