A dilemma for District 51 staff?

Employees asked not to advocate for bond issue

The sign at Orchard Mesa Middle School read, “your kids deserve a new school” in a photo taken on July 31. The sign has since been changed, but not because of recently issued guidelines cautioning School District 51 employees against violating state election laws.



Sometime during the past week, the message on the sign outside Orchard Mesa Middle School was changed and now offers information on office hours and the upcoming school year.



The nearly 3,000 people employed by School District 51 must walk a fine line this fall between sharing their passion for education and advocating for two ballot measures that could have a substantial impact on their future.

According to Colorado election law requirements under the Fair Campaign Practices Act, school district employees can’t campaign or advocate for the ballot measures during working hours or using school resources.

A nearly 900-word email sent to all School District 51 staff last week summarized the state’s election law and outlined employee guidelines for talking about the proposed bond measure and mill levy override that together total more than $120 million.

District spokeswoman Emily Shockley said it’s the first set of guidelines that has been sent to staff about the election.

District staff is “cautioned against” sending home materials with students concerning the ballot measures or giving students assignments about the ballot issue topic. The memo to district staff also advises against allowing use of school equipment, facilities or supplies to assist with the campaign, except in ways that are in line with normal use by community groups.

The new guidelines affected Orchard Mesa Middle School, which will be replaced with a new school if the $118 million bond measure is approved by voters in November.

For the past two summers, Orchard Mesa Principal Cheri Vana has changed the school’s marquee, located on Unaweep Avenue, to say “Your kids deserve a new school.”

The marquee’s phrase stayed the same after the District 51 Board of Education voted on June 20 to put two funding measures on the November ballot.

By Friday, the marquee had changed to a back-to-school message.

“We put that up at the beginning of the summer and probably should have taken it down as soon as it was official,” Vana said. “We won’t put that up again.”

Colorado Secretary of State spokeswoman Julia Sunny would not say whether the Orchard Mesa Middle School sign infringed on the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act.

“It’s not within our office to judge if something is an issue or not,” Sunny said. “If you’re worried about it, you can file a formal complaint. But as far as giving an opinion on something like that, we can’t do that.”

Colorado election law does not prohibit school district staff using personal time and resources to support or oppose a ballot measure or candidate.

At the campaign kickoff for issue committee Citizens for School District 51, Vana and Superintendent Ken Haptonstall spoke to volunteers about the importance of increasing funding for schools.

At the same campaign event, District 51 teachers and staff knocked on doors to ask people if they were voting for the bond measure and mill levy override.

Despite increasing public focus on the two ballot measures, Shockley said the school district will continue to focus on moving forward with its new learning model, performance-based learning.

“We are innovating and we are trying … to work on our education model, and there are some schools doing particularly exciting things this year to try to be 21st century schools,” Shockley said.


COMMENTS

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Dust. 51 wants to spend millions of dollars for computers and software and performance based learning. It is fundamentally a way to push kids onto computers to learn — and to take test after test to prove their competencies. Like Common Core it’s another experiment with our children’s education. Bill Gates said in 2013 that we wouldn’t know for ten years if it’s working or not. I don’t want computers teaching my grandchildren. I can already see my 4th grader is not reading as well as her older siblings at that age. She’s right in the front of all these changes (experiments.) Our children should not be sitting in front of computers trying to follow the prompts and instructions. We are human beings and should learn from each other, not from a flat box sitting in front of our eyes. S.A.

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