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An Ounce of Prevention: Remember Campaigning Rules This Election Season

K-12 Education Publications

With November elections right around the corner and April board elections not far behind, it’s a good time to brush off the rules governing campaigning by school employees and board members. A recently revised Answers to FAQs Regarding Referendum Activities Conducted by School Officials from the Illinois Association of School Boards Council of School Attorneys is a great place to start for information about the dos and don’ts of referendum activities. Many of those prohibitions are like ones applicable to public officers and employees under the State Officials and Employee Ethics Act. For busy employees and board members, some key points to remember are:

  1. Use of district funds and resources for political activity is a no-no. For both referenda and general political activity, the use of district or school funds to encourage a “yes” or “no” vote on an issue is prohibited.
  2. “Resources” includes everything, big and small. Even if you think an extra copy here or there on the school copy machine or a quick Facebook post on your work laptop is a minimal thing, the prohibition on the use of school district property or resources for political activity is a broad one.
  3. Exception for referendum facts. There is an exception regarding the use of district and school funds regarding a referendum; a school district, school board, or school official or employee can use district or school funds and time to get out the facts about a referendum. When you think facts, err on the side of caution.
  4. Remember the Open Meetings Act. School District Officials asked to appear publicly to share facts about a referendum can do so. Board members also can express support for a referendum or other political activity, as long as they don’t use school resources to do so. But always remember the OMA. Be careful if a majority of a quorum of a school board or a committee of a school board will attend a political function together, whether in an informational capacity on the part of the board or in an individual personal capacity.
  5. No advocacy on school time. School employees shed their right to advocate for or against a political issue at the schoolhouse gate and at any other time that could be considered school time. If you clock in and clock out, that can be an easy line to draw, but if you have duties outside of normal school or work hours, it can be complicated. In the case of cabinet-level administrators, it may be difficult to separate personal and professional roles. We recommend that such individuals be very careful to define their status if they elect to engage in political activities. Board members have much greater freedom to take public political positions, but remember to make clear that you are speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the school district or in an official role. Finally, administrators and board members should also be careful to avoid taking any action that has the effect or appears to have the effect, of coercing district employees to support a political cause.