GONZALES — The Ascension Parish school system has asked teachers to call parents of their students to ask them to support an April 9 tax renewal and then note parents’ responses for administrators without their knowledge.
Hoping to win parents’ backing of the $120 million tax renewal on the ballot next month, teachers who volunteered to make the calls were given a script written by the school system’s public relations firm to seek out parents’ support as part of a broader public relations campaign.
Titled “Homeroom Parents Call Script for Ascension Public School Teachers,” the one-page document directs teachers to identify themselves by name as a child’s teacher, describe the purpose of the tax renewal and then “to personally ask for your support of a school board election on April 9.”
The script then directs teachers, working off a list of names, to write a Y next to the names of parents who say they will support the tax and turn that list in to their principals. If parents have questions, the script directs teachers to note that so somebody else can call them.
A spokeswoman for Louisiana’s fourth-ranked public school system said teachers aren’t pressured to conduct the telephone calls. If they do wish to make the calls, they are done off-campus and off the clock.
“We certainly do not want any parent or teacher to feel pressured,” said Jackie Tisdell, the Ascension system spokeswoman.
She said teachers do not inform parents that their responses will be written down but added the lists of responses are created only for later informational follow-up or reminders about the tax election.
Tisdell said the lists, which are collected by principals, are destroyed some time after the election and are not used for any purpose related to a child’s education.
“Absolutely not,” Tisdell said.
The school system’s efforts came to light after a copy of the script and a blanket email from the Lakeside Primary School principal referencing the script and the phone campaign were provided to The Advocate.
In the email sent out to teachers on March 9, Lakeside Primary School Principal Laurent Thomas asked homeroom teachers who would be making the calls to note whether parents came back as a “yes” or “no” and turn the list back in to Thomas.
Tisdell said the phone calls were happening under a systemwide procedure that had been used for past school tax elections. She said the effort is legal, as it is voluntary and conducted off-campus.
“We never had a problem with it before. It’s my understanding the school district had done this in the past, and there has never been a problem,” Tisdell said.
Under a procedure described by Tisdell, teachers at each of the district’s 27 schools were offered a chance to make the calls voluntarily only if the teacher had first expressed interest in making them.
Tisdell could not say Thursday how many teachers were making calls and said she wouldn’t know that number until they turned in their tally sheets. According to the public schools’ latest annual audit, the system has more than 1,450 classroom teachers.
She said she did not know how many years the practice has been happening but said other school districts use similar voluntary efforts.
State law prohibits the use of public funds to advocate for or against a tax election, but it allows local governments to use public money to provide information about tax measures.
The state ethics code also bars public servants from using the authority of their position to directly or indirectly compel or coerce public employees from engaging in political activity.
But Kathleen Allen, state ethics administrator, said the prohibition on coercion for political activity applies only to support or opposition of political candidates, not tax elections.
“There is not an ethics code provision that catches that,” she said.
Les Landon, public relations director for the teachers union East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said that, according to the union’s attorney, the call procedure “doesn’t appear to conflict” with any laws.
“We certainly endorse this bond issue,” Landon said of the Ascension school district’s proposal on the upcoming ballot.
“If teachers want to help and put together voter lists” to call, that’s fine, Landon said.
“The only place we have an issue with what is happening is if teachers feel they’re being pressured or if any kind of action is taken against them for not participating,” he said. “Then the union has a big problem.”
On April 9, voters in Ascension will go the polls to vote on a proposed extension of an existing property tax to raise $120 million in funds for the construction of three new primary schools and one middle school to address overcrowding and to plan for a new high school and other renovations.
The School Board has undertaken a public awareness campaign in recent weeks, publishing fliers about the bond extension, putting information on its website and holding public forums at the district’s four high schools.
The School Board’s longtime public relations consultant, Delia Taylor, helped draft the phone call script, Tisdell said. Taylor’s company does a variety of public relations work for the school system on retainer.
While Tisdell described a procedure for enlisting teachers and giving them the script as being on a face-to-face basis only after teachers initiated interest in volunteering, the email sent out by the Lakeside principal suggested some differences in how the campaign was handled at that school.
Laurent, the principal, declined comment. In an email addressed to “Homeroom Teachers,” Laurent wrote that another official at his school had put “a list of your homeroom parents w/names & phone numbers in your mailboxes today.” Teachers were told to make the calls “if you decide to do so” between March 14 and 22, returning the notations of parents’ responses to his office by March 23.
Tisdell said Laurent wasn’t supposed to distribute the blanket email but provide a hard copy of the script during a recent professional development day for teachers when students were not at school.
“At the end of the school day, after they’ve done all of their work, that they (principals) would ask any teachers and say very clearly, ‘OK, our work for the day is done, and you are dismissed. If you would like to stay afterwards and volunteer to help out with the construction bond campaign, then stay. We’ll provide you with some more information, and everyone else is free to go,’ ” Tisdell said.
Only then was the script supposed to be provided to teachers who stayed.
The principals also would then provide parents’ names and numbers to teachers who volunteered, she said.