District Policy Unclear Regarding When and Where Teachers May Express Political Views

Haaniya Mallick, Reporter

 

With Election Day fast approaching, it remains unclear whether teachers and other staff members have been given a directive not to take a stand on political issues or candidates.

Two years ago, in October 2014, P-CCS district staff members received an email from the community relations office of the P-CCS district that said: “All Plymouth-Canton Community Schools employees are reminded that we are to publicly remain politically neutral, not endorsing or speaking against any candidate for public office as part of our positions with P-CCS.”

The email was unclear regarding whether this policy applies to staff members outside of the work day.

Scott Milam, a Plymouth chemistry teacher at the Park, replied to the email asking for clarification about what the email was addressing; however, no response was forthcoming.

Park teachers expressed differing views regarding what the directive means and whether it applies outside the work day and if it affects their teaching.

“I don’t think your job can tell you what you campaign for outside school. That is your right as a citizen. I think it just meant inside the classroom, as a representative of the district. I still probably couldn’t send a personal email,” said Wendy Carlisle, a Plymouth English teacher. “I am also the union chair person of the building, so I know my contract and I know they absolutely cannot restrict my rights to express myself outside the confines of my job. I still probably couldn’t send a personal email to all my students, because that’s me in my role as a teacher to my students. But I can say whatever I want about how I think and how I feel.”

Mike Guinta, Salem math teacher, did not recall the e-mail. However, he said, “It does not affect me in any way, or in the way I teach.”

John Magolick, Canton science teacher, agreed. “We are not supposed to impose our political views on students. I’ve never tried to do that in the class and I’ve never thought about it, you know what I’m saying? But, yeah, I didn’t really think it was saying anything outside the classroom.”

Nicholas Fotiu, Canton economics teacher, brought up that keeping neutral has been an issue in the past. He said, “The district has always told us as staff members that you are not supposed to use your school email for any sort of political conversations. So since our teachers are a union, that even includes our union leaders. They are not supposed to technically say on a school email we are endorsing this person, or we support this candidate, or whatever it may be.”

Fotiu added, “I don’t think it limits the teachers in any way, to be honest. I think you can still use your personal email to contact people, because technically your school email is school property. Just like if it was any other job; you know if you are saying things that your employer does not like on their email. Then as a teacher, that’s no different. You know what you do personally is up to you. You can’t be using school time as well to be doing those types of things.”

William Boyd, Salem civics teacher, said, “The district has no business in telling what teachers can and can’t do in their free time.” He added, “As long as you’re doing legal things, the district should have no say in what you’re doing in your spare time.”

Christopher Belch, Canton civics teacher, said, “Being a government teacher in a public school, I firmly believe in what the constitution says. The constitution grants the right for me to have a public opinion and grants the right for free speech. I understand that in the classroom I definitely feel that my political opinion has no place. It has no place on school property, it has no place with anything when I am acting as an official duty as a teacher. But when I am outside the classroom, I feel that I should have the political right to speak my mind. I mean that’s what our founding fathers fought the American Revolution over. We fought for the idea of free speech and to any way ask me to restrict my speech, as long as I am not using school resources, I feel that I should have the right of free speech.”

The wording of the district email was of concern to some. “I am not a lawyer,” said Belch, “but I find it troubling that somebody would ask me, in a public school where public discourse is encouraged, to silence my political opinions.”

Darrin Silvester, a Salem civics teacher, questioned the email’s link to another email that was sent two years ago, one that was memorialized in the Board of Education minutes from May 25, 2014. The minutes say:

“Member Maloney indicated that he had received a copy of a fundraising letter, sent by former board member Steven Sneideman, on behalf of State Representative Diann Slavens, to P-CCS district union employees via their school email addresses. The letter was an invitation to get involved in Ms. Slavens’ upcoming campaign, as well as a solicitation for campaign contributions. Member Maloney further pointed out that former Superintendent Jeremy Hughes had previously discussed the issue with Ms. Slavens reminding them of our policy, and that the practice of soliciting district employees while at work isn’t appropriate and that the district shouldn’t further one side or the other in a political debate. President Mardigian indicated that she had not read the letter, that she wished Member Maloney had provided her a copy of the letter prior to the meeting and that she would take the request “under advisement.” Member Paton noted that the email isn’t coming from a district email and that our policy says you can’t use district email for solicitation, but there isn’t anything that says you can’t receive things on your district email. Member Maloney replied that he thought it was wrong to use a district resource, which the district email list definitely is. Mark Horvath asked the Policy Committee to review the policy and let the Board know what the policy provides. Member Crouch agreed to do so.”

The Perspective attempted to contact Maloney, but he has not responded.

The Perspective could locate no record of an update regarding review of the policy in board minutes.