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School districts sued, accused of ‘illegal electioneering’ with public tax money

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(The Center Square) – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing several public school districts for allegedly using taxpayer resources to advocate against school choice and to vote for or against candidates in specific primary elections to influence outcomes.

School choice is a top issue for Republican primary voters as Gov. Greg Abbott has endorsed candidates who he believes will support his school choice bill after multiple efforts failed last year during the regular and special legislative sessions.

The Texas Senate passed a bipartisan bill last year to create the first Education Savings Account program primarily for low-income and minority students. The bill never got a hearing in the Republican-controlled House. An education bill in the House, which included a school choice provision, was also killed by House Republicans.

Some House Republicans who oppose school choice retired, but those who didn’t have been targeted by school choice candidates, largely endorsed by Abbott and other state leaders. In an effort to combat a growing movement that supports school choice and is popular among the majority of Republican voters, public school officials waded into the primary election and are now facing the civil suits.

Denton Independent School District was the first to be sued, on Feb. 22, “for illegal electioneering by using taxpayer-funded resources to stump for specific candidates during an election.”

On Feb. 5, DISD Alexander Elementary School principal Lindsey Lujan allegedly sent an email to all staff members encouraging them to vote for candidates who “support public schools” and who are against “vouchers,” or school choice. She used a Denton ISD email to distribute voting guidelines to employees, including a list of all candidates who support or oppose public school education, identifying all Democrats as friendly and all Republicans as unfriendly. Jesus Lujan, the principal of Borman Elementary School in DISD, also sent an email from his school email address encouraging employees to vote in the Republican primary against school choice candidates regardless of their party affiliation.

Their emails violate the Texas Election Code, Paxton’s lawsuit argues, which prohibits the use of “state or local funds or other resources of the district to electioneer for or against any candidate, measure, or political party.”

Next to be sued was Frisco ISD in Collin County for “illegally electioneering” using taxpayer funded resources for the same purposes, according to a Feb. 28 lawsuit. Frisco ISD’s Government Affairs office allegedly published Facebook posts encouraging ISD community members to vote for public school funding as it pertains to “a voucher program,” in primary elections “regardless of which party they normally identify with” to influence who wins the election.

On Feb. 29, Paxton sued Denison ISD and Castleberry ISD in Tarrant County for the same reasons: “illegally using official resources to promote certain political candidates and policies,” also over school choice. Denison ISD’s official website expressed support and opposition for certain political candidates and against school choice. Castleberry ISD’s superintendent allegedly used her official email to endorse political candidates and instructed ISD staff to “vote accordingly.”

“I am extremely troubled by this pattern of government officials engaged in illegal electioneering. These are government employees charged with the education of our children. They must respect our laws,” Paxton said Thursday. “I will continue to use every legal remedy available to me to stop this unlawful conduct. Elections are the foundation of our republic. They must be free and fair.”

Because the Office of the Attorney General falls under the executive branch and not the judicial branch, the Texas Constitution prohibits the office from criminally prosecuting Election Code violations, as recently ruled by the state Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas v. Stephens. However, the Texas Constitution and state law do not prevent the OAG from seeking civil injunctive relief to get a court order to prohibit school districts from attempting to influence elections.

“It is absolutely improper for publicly funded entities like school districts to engage in electioneering as Denton ISD has done,” Paxton said. “State law prohibits government officials – including school district personnel – from using either their positions of authority or taxpayer resources to influence the outcome of elections. Government officials everywhere are on notice that I will use every legal remedy available to me to stop school districts from influencing or coercing their employees to vote any particular way, especially when a district uses taxpayer resources and money to do so. Our elections must be completely protected from any illegal interference.”

So far, the district court of Collin County granted a temporary restraining order against Frisco ISD and the District Court of Tarrant County granted a temporary restraining order against Castleberry ISD. The courts directed the districts and their employees not to use any funds or resources to engage in electioneering in violation of Texas Election Code.

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