Drive by any public school in Miami-Dade County and you’ll see the same message on the marquee: “#362 For Teachers!”
The marquees are referring to the punch number, #362, a yes vote on the Miami-Dade County general election ballot for a school board property tax referendum benefiting teacher pay and school security.
But state law has strict rules barring local governments, including school districts, from expending public funds for a “political advertisement” concerning an issue, including a referendum. It does not preclude governments or people acting on the behalf of governments from using resources to communicate factual information.
The school district on Monday provided the Miami Herald with emails directing school principals and assistant principals to display rotating messages about the referendum on school marquees during specific weeks. Other messages, scheduled for a week at a time, read “#362 for School Safety!” and “#362 To Secure Our Future!”
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Secure Our Future is the political action committee created to promote the referendum.
The email also directed schools to distribute a flier about the referendum to students three times between October and November as well as at all varsity sporting events and school events “that may bring the community to school campuses.” Schools were also encouraged to share information about the referendum on social media accounts with the hashtag #SecureOurFuture.
However, Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers last month received an email with instructions about decorum during election season.
It read that teachers are allowed to distribute educational and informational materials while on duty, however they “must be approved by the appropriate personnel.” They can give opinions and state positions “orally, if asked,” and volunteer when off-duty for or against the referendum question.
Teachers, according to the email, cannot advocate for a position for or against the referendum through their district email and “through district-paid websites, servers, fliers or other district-paid publications or materials.” They cannot coerce or direct other employees to advocate for or against the referendum, nor can they direct their subordinates to advocate for a position on the referendum.
The email attached speaking points for the referendum and provided a link to the Secure Our Future website.
“The District has been diligent in educating the public about the referendum, while cautioning employees not to express their support for it while on duty or with District resources,” district spokesman John Schuster wrote in an email. “The wording of the marquee message was crafted to inform the public about the referendum without asking them to vote for it.”
The school district skirted the same issue in 2012 when it sent thousands of double-sided fliers home with students with information about the $1.2 billion general obligation bond for school renovations and technology upgrades, which was on the general election ballot. A political science professor at Barry University quoted at the time in a Herald article said it was a “gray area.”
“As long as they’re not telling people how to vote, they’re on the safe side in advocating and promoting the issue,” said Sean Foreman. “I think you can even promote through the use of facts, as long as you’re not telling people, ‘Vote for this.’”