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Parental activism hindered by school policy: But no ‘political activity’ doesn’t extend to after class

MANATEE — Upset at budget cuts to their children’s schools, parents across Manatee County have been mobilizing to lobby state lawmakers to make their voices heard.

But the movement hit a snag recently when they tried to set up tents and tables on campus to gather signatures and hand out information because of a school board policy that prohibits “political activity” in schools.

Manatee school district officials say they may have found a way to resolve it.

In the past two months, parents at Williams Elementary and Haile Middle have been gathering support from their peers to write letters, sign petitions and call up locally elected officials to ask them to stop making cuts to public schools and to find other ways to fund education.

District officials have been grappling with budget cuts in the past two years because of state sales tax revenue deficit. This school year alone, the school board approved about $30 million in cuts to the district’s operating budget, which included pay cuts for employees. In the next three years, district officials anticipate having to shave $25 million more.

Parents say they are tired of it and say it’s time they make their voices heard.

“These people are hired by us. If they keep pushing our children to the bottom of list ... we’ll stop electing them,” said Joy Murphy, a parent at Anna Maria Elementary. “Maybe someday, someone will get the message. We’re not going to be the silent partners anymore.”

Some parents’ activism was hampered by a school board policy that does not allow such activities on campus.

“The policy said there should be no political activity on school board property during school time,” said John Bowen, school board attorney. “It defines political activity pretty specifically to include any activity to try to persuade anybody in favor or against any candidate or issue.”

The policy seeks to keep disruptions at a minimum for students during the school day, said Walter Miller, school board chairman.

“I think the intent of the policy is to not bring political campaigns, in sense of elections, on campus and be disruptive to students,” he said.

Parents at Williams Elementary had set up a tent and some tables and chairs at school to catch other parents picking up their children after school or daycare, said Christine Sket, a parent and School Advisory Council member.

They have got 80 letters written and gathered 340 signatures — from the edge of the school’s property.

“It was very difficult,” Sket said.

At Haile, Mary Anne McDevitt, the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization president, said they couldn’t even do that because of the road construction along State Road 64. Setting up tents near the campus became a safety issue, and she thinks parents should be allowed in the school.

“We are not being political activists, we are being compassionate parents,” she said. “We want to help get rid of the budget cuts. We want to make sure every parent knows what is going on.”

But Superintendent Tim McGonegal may have found a way out for these parents.

The same policy allows groups to rent schools after hours. Parents who want to continue to advocate for their children can fill out a form and submit it to the principal and school district administrators, he said.

Unlike other rentals, McGonegal said these parents would not likely be charged a fee because most of the activity will be outside and after school hours.

He understands how gray the area is between the parents’ activism and the “political activity” described in the board policy.

“To some degree, it’s taking a political stance,” he said. “But we are advocating for public education.”