Budget & Tax
Mike Brake | February 22, 2018
After Step Up plan fails, OKCPS urges employees to contact lawmakers
The acting superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools used the district’s taxpayer-funded email system to urge teachers and other staff members to lobby state lawmakers in the wake of the failure of the Step Up Oklahoma tax increase/teacher pay plan, OCPA has learned.
“Yes this did come from OKCPS Acting Superintendent Rebecca Kaye via email to all OKCPS staff,” district spokeswoman Beth Harrison confirmed.
The email was sent shortly after the Oklahoma House of Representatives failed to advance a tax increase and teacher pay raise plan supported by a group called Step Up Oklahoma.
“It is unfortunate that some of our legislators, particularly those in our OKCPS delegation, did not support the Step Up plan to give our teachers a long-overdue raise,” Kaye wrote.
She urged district staffers to “Reach out to your legislator (not only the one that you vote for, but the one that represents your school) and let them know how this decision impacts you and your family.”
“The battle isn’t over,” Kaye continued, “and I am hopeful we can partner with our legislators to move the needle in the right direction for public education, for you and for our kids.” The email also included a screen shot of the House vote-tally board showing how the members voted on HB1033XX, the measure containing the Step Up proposal.
State representatives from Oklahoma City who voted no on the measure include Forrest Bennett, Kevin Calvey, Mickey Dollens, Jason Lowe, Shane Stone, and Collin Walke.
Voting yes were Jason Dunnington, Jon Echols, Elise Hall, Chris Kannady, Cyndi Munson, and George Young.
Andrew Spiropoulos, law professor at Oklahoma City University, said the email may not be illegal but could be seen by some as ill-advised.
“As long as employees are not coerced, there is nothing necessarily illegal about a supervisor trying to persuade her employees to support a particular policy,” said Spiropoulos, who serves as director of the Center for the Study of State Constitutional Law and Government at the OCU School of Law. “Indeed, under some circumstances, this speech may be protected by the First Amendment. But the fact that speech is legal doesn’t make it proper.”
Spiropoulos added that “there are good reasons both our nation and state have long had laws regulating the partisan political activities of supervisors of public employees. We don’t want employees to feel that if they don’t support the policy or candidate pushed by their boss, they won’t keep their jobs, be promoted, or get raises.”
What, he asked, about school employees who did not support the Step Up proposal?
“It doesn’t seem to occur to school administrators that some teachers may disagree that we should raise taxes to fund teacher pay raises or may not think we should raise the pay of teachers across the board. I wouldn’t be surprised if dissenting teachers, after reading this email, decide it would be safer to stay quiet and conceal their views. School administrators should focus on educating their students and keep the politics out of the workplace.” [Disclosure: Spiropoulos also serves as a distinguished fellow at OCPA.]
Harrison defended the email by citing an opinion from district legal counsel Laura L. Holmes.
“The Oklahoma Attorney General has advised that school districts have the implied power to lobby the Legislature and that such power is essential to the purposes of a school board,” Holmes wrote, citing a 1995 attorney general’s opinion. “Thus . . . the Superintendent’s email encouraging staff to lobby the Legislature regarding passage of a bill was legal. The District does have a policy which is consistent with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission’s Rules regarding campaigning on school property. However, from a plain reading of the policy, it is clear that it prohibits actions related to campaigning for a political office and/or fundraising for political office. In my opinion, the letter from the Superintendent did not violate District policy or the law.”
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.