Ky. Court Sends Mixed Message on Ban On School Workers’ Political Activities

By Lonnie Harp — June 17, 1992 4 min read

The Kentucky Supreme Court has issued a ruling that both supports and reverses state lawmakers on a key provision of the state’s education-reform law barring school employees from participating in board elections.

In its decision this month, the split court overturned the 1990 reform law’s blanket ban on political activities by school employees, calling it too broad.

Observers said, however, that the court appeared to approve the spirit of the reforms. Moreover, the court upheld more narrowly drawn provisions barring employees from managing school-board campaigns and prohibiting board members from soliciting employee contributions.

“There is a real and present danger in any system where those who have the overall responsibility for the administration of the schools can attain their position in large part because of the solicitations from those who work for the system,” wrote Justice Donald Wintersheimer in the 4-to-3 decision. “Political neutrality for school employees is a sound element in any efficient system of education.”

But his opinion went on to maintain that lawmakers should have been more specific in limiting campaign participation, a provision that drew strong opposition from the state’s teachers’ union during debate on the legislation.

“The use of the word ‘activities’ is vague, ambiguous, and far too general,” the court concluded, adding that the present wording “does not give school employees a fair notice of the standard of conduct to which they are to be held accountable.”

A Partial Victory

Leaders of the Kentucky Education Association, which supported the key legal test of the law’s political ban, called the decision a partial victory last week.

Despite publicized episodes of political corruption in some districts, I which colored much of the debate on the 1990 bill, lawmakers were wrong to deny teachers and school employees a voice in local elections, said David Allen, the president of the K.E.A.

“The problem was abuse of the political system in which employees were being strong-armed or threatened, not that school employees were involved in politics,” he argued. “I don’t think this should harm the education reforms at all.”

And while the union officials see the reversal as a victory and the upholding of the ban on managing campaigns as having little effect, they view the court’s opinion on campaign contributions as “a bit more cloudy,” Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Allen noted that while the law continues to bar solicitation, officials are still unsure about the propriety of unsolicited contributions.

Contribution Ban Hailed

Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen focused on the court’s continued ban on contributions.

“It’s a victory for Kentuckians who want politics out of the schools,” he said, adding that the decision “supports responsible school governance.”

“It removes the potential that school-board candidates have for intimidating school employees by demanding campaign contributions,” he maintained.

But despite Mr. Boysen’s positive reaction, most observers concluded that the decision was a mixed bag that seemed to both take a swipe at and reinforce the state’s bold reforms.

Observers pointed to headlines in the state’s two major newspapers the day after the ruling. One noted that the court had upheld the contribution curb; the other declared that the court had flunked part of the school-reform law.

The justices said in the majority opinion that the legislature should be able to revise the law to limit campaign involvement. The three dissenting justices argued, however, that lawmakers appeared already to have followed judicial guidelines in drafting the original language.

“It is clear, however, that the Kentucky General Assembly has both the power and the authority ... to restrict the political activity of school employees in school-board elections if necessary to remove corruptive political influence,” wrote Justice Dan Jack Combs in his dissent.

Governance Provisions Backed

In another legal test of the reform law, the state court of appeals has blocked the reinstatement of a trio of ousted Harlan County school-board members pending an appeal of their case, which is seen as the initial test of the law’s governance provisions.

The court’s ruling will stay a ruling last month by a Harlan County judge who reversed the state’s ouster of the three men on misconduct charges. The appeals court’s ruling once again puts the district under state control pending the appeal. (See Education Week, June 3, 1992.)

Benny Dale Coleman, the chairman of the Harlan board, and two members, Ronnie Ball and David Lewis, were removed by the state board of education in January after they were found in violation of school construction and bidding laws. Another board member and the district superintendent resigned rather than face similar state charges.

The district has been under state control since the charges were filed.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as Ky. Court Sends Mixed Message on Ban On School Workers’ Political Activities