LISD was closely watching legal boundaries with voting advocacy, documents show

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(Photo Illustration - The Lewisville Texan Journal)

The Lewisville Texan Journal has obtained documents sent by Lewisville ISD to the Texas Attorney General’s office in response to that office’s open records request in February. The documents show that school district officials were keenly aware of what they could and could not say while advocating for voting.

On Feb. 14, assistant attorney general Cleve Doty sent a cease-and-desist letter to LISD superintendent Kevin Rogers and board president Angie Cox that accused the district of electioneering, or using public funds to advocate for particular candidates or a particular political viewpoint. The Attorney General’s office also sent letters to Holliday and Brazosport ISDs.

The cease-and-desist letter specifically mentioned a Feb. 6 tweet that read “We are asking for support from our state Legislature. We’re not getting it. It’s time for change,” as well as a video in which Rogers urged staff members and the public to use their “teacher voice” in the primary election. The letter asked the school district to remove those posts.

“The district concludes its message by stating that its purpose is to ‘send a strong message to Austin’ by electing certain candidates,” the letter reads. “In short, Lewisville ISD promulgated a campaign to ensure the election of certain candidates to the Texas Legislature.”

The tweet was removed, but the district has stood by its video.

That same day, Doty also sent a public information request to LISD, asking for any written communications sent from an officer or employee of the district containing the words “Texas legislature” or “primary.” The request was later clarified to include any emails within the six months prior to the request.

Public information requests to a government entity legally require a response within 10 days. LISD asked for additional time to comply with Doty’s request, given its scope. Responsive records were eventually sent to the Attorney General’s office in July. The Lewisville Texan Journal subsequently requested the package of responsive records.

District paralegal Ingrid Gunter said LISD charged the Attorney General’s office more than $1,700 for the amount of time it took to gather this information, but because the information was already gathered when we requested it, it was made available to us for free. You can read through the 1,522 pages of responsive emails here.

The documents contain 44 mentions of “Texas Legislature” and 178 mentions of the word “primary,” the majority of which are either repeated or inconsequential. “Texas Legislature” is mentioned several times as a citation in emails explaining where and when certain laws come from. The word “primary” is used several times in emails organizing use of The Colony High School as a site for the Democratic Primary runoff and a few requests for campaign donations from the Beto O’Rourke and Greg Abbott campaigns to individuals at their school district address. It is also used several times as an adjective, not in reference to any election.

The key words are each used several times in the transcripts and earlier versions of the script for the “teacher voice” video, which repeat a couple of times within the emails. Early scripts for the video, contained in emails from last November, show that Rogers initially would have encouraged staff and citizens to vote in the Republican primary.

“I want to challenge you to unite behind a common cause this spring – ensuring pro-education legislators come out of the Republican Primaries and move on to the general election in November,” the initial script reads. “Why is the Republican Primary important, regardless of your political affiliation? Because in Texas, Republicans currently control all the statewide offices, and it is highly likely whoever wins the Republican Primary in any state race will win the general election. So we must be active in the Republican Primary if we hope to impact the landscape of Texas politics.”

In the video itself and the post-video transcript, all mention of the Republican Primary has been removed from this passage, and it is a call to be involved in both the Democratic and Republican Primary elections. This part of the video starts around the 1:45 mark.

The responsive documents also contain emails from chief schools officer Joseph Coburn asking district officials to refrain from specifying a particular party when promoting the primary and the teacher voice campaign.

Texas holds open primaries, meaning that in each two-year election cycle, voters can choose either party primary to vote in. This fact has been used by citizens who identify with both Republican and Democratic parties tactically to interfere with the other’s primary in the past, but the effect is generally not dramatic.

A key slide of the advocacy Powerpoint, rough drafts of which were found in district emails that were requested by the state Attorney General’s office.

The emails also contain drafts of an advocacy Powerpoint that seems to be aimed at district employees expressly stating what can and cannot be said on company time. The presentation says it’s OK to talk about the facts and support public education in general, with “in general” emphasized, but that it isn’t OK to advocate for specific policies or candidates using LISD time or resources.

As examples, the presentation highlighted apparently anti-public education actions or quotes from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, State Sen. Don Huffines and State Sen. Louis Kolkhurst as facts, and gave statements like, “Educating the 90 percent plus of Texas children who are in public schools should be a much higher priority than what bathrooms people use” as a general, pro-public education statement.

The same slide explicitly says you can not say things such as, “Vote for Scott Milder or Dan Patrick for Lt. Governor” or “Vote for the LISD bond package” using district resources or time.

The specific incumbent Republicans who represent the LISD area, Representatives Ron Simmons and Tan Parker and State Sen. Jane Nelson, were barely mentioned in the emails. Simmons said that he was aware of Doty’s cease-and-desist letter, and he gave Rogers and LISD his vote of confidence.

“I know Dr. Rogers well enough to know that he cares deeply about the students and staff and LISD. There is frustration by all of us relating to the current funding formulas for public education, which is why I support ending ‘Robin Hood’ and allowing all of the school tax revenue collected from property owners in LISD to stay in LISD,” he said. “I am committed to doing my part to improve education for all the children in House District 65, and I know Dr. Rogers and his team at LISD are committed to doing the same.”

District legal counsel Jeff Crownover emphatically denied that the district was doing anything wrong in February, and he continued to do so in August. He said that what the Attorney General’s office is accusing the district of is closer to political advertising than electioneering, and while political advertising is also prohibited for school districts, Crownover said their communication does not violate that prohibition either.

“Urging District employees to vote and stating that we believe our legislature should take better care of the over 90 percent of kids in the Texas public education system is clearly not electioneering,” he said. “Even though the District believes that encouraging people to vote in a particular party’s primary is not against the law, it has generally chosen to stay away from doing so for the same reason the District decided to take down the tweet that was misinterpreted – out of an abundance of caution because there is lots of confusion in the public arena about what is legal and what is not.”

Crownover said there had been no further interaction between the district and the state office other than communications back and forth regarding the open records request. The district had requested an in-person discussion with the Attorney General’s office in February, but the state wanted to see the documents before having such a meeting.

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