Steve Walker- General Counsel, office of the Lt. Governor.
Use of county schools’ computer network for politics draws unfavorable attention from Raleigh
BOE attorney calls anti-Baldwin e-mails ‘inappropriate;’ state calls them illegal
By Roger McCredie- The campaign for Reynolds District representative on the Buncombe County Board of Education took on a new dimension last week, when a stray message revealed that a former county principal had asked still-serving friends to use their school system e-mail accounts to circulate political material.
Board of Education attorney Chris Campbell has termed the use of school equipment to urge school personnel to vote for challenger Cindy McMahon over incumbent Lisa Baldwin “inappropriate.”
However, Steven Walker, General Counsel for Lt. Gov. Dan Forrest, says that the circulation of the political material on school system equipment violates several sections of North Carolina General Statute 153A-99: “County Employee Political Activity.”
On Oct. 23, Carmen Murray, former principal at Sand Hill-Venable School, sent an e-mail to Betsy Oakes, “Power School Information Specialist” at the school and Beverly Combs, the school’s data manager and head secretary. The e-mail contained a message to faculty members and administrators at the school, together with instructions to Oakes and Combs for sharing it:
“Please forward this to the SHV staff,” Murray’s e-mail says, “Since my bcs [Buncombe County Schools] account is no longer active, I don’t have my staff group, and due to the political content of this message, it shouldn’t come from the administration there, but it’s fine to forward it on my behalf if you don’t mind. Thx!” [smiley face]
The message Murray asked to be forwarded reads:
“Hi friends! As principal, I would have never endorsed a specific candidate to vote for (and certainly not in writing!), but as your friend, you can better believe I’m going to be vocal about how important the upcoming school board election is. I’m sure you remember me telling you that as a group of educators, we can single handedly elect who we want in office, or in this case, who we don’t want on our Board. So with that said, PLEASE GO VOTE for CINDY MCMAHON.
“ We simply must remove Lisa Baldwin from our school board immediately! It doesn’t matter about what district you are in. Candidates are elected system wide on a non partisan basis.”
“My other endorsements are Pat Bryant and Max Queen.”
The e-mail goes on to say,“Now, please also tell all the rest of your friends and relatives that we need their help as well. Don’t assume that someone else will do it for you! Use your voice!!”
The message’s header shows that, having received Murray’s letter, Oakes reposted it to a total of 84 Sand Hill-Venable faculty and staff.
On October 27, in response to an inquiry from Baldwin, Walker indicated that under state law, and in contrast to Murray’s assurance, the circulation of her letter through the county schools’ e-mail system was anything but “fine.”
The section of NCGS cited by Walker reads, in part, “The purpose of this section is to ensure that county employees are not subjected to political or partisan coercion while performing their job duties … and to ensure that public funds are not used for political or partisan activities.”
The section stipulates that “ No employee while on duty or in the workplace may … use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or nomination for political office.” It ends by stating, “No employee may use county funds, supplies, or equipment for partisan purposes, or for political purposes “
Walker also cited a portion of NCGS 126-13. “Appropriate political activity of state employees defined.” The cited portion of that section reads:
“ …no State employee subject to the North Carolina Human Resources Act or temporary State employee shall:
(1) Take any active part in managing a campaign, or campaign for political office or otherwise engage in political activity while on duty or within any period of time during which he is expected to perform services for which he receives compensation from the State;
(2) Otherwise use the authority of his position, or utilize State funds, supplies or vehicles to secure support for or oppose any candidate, party, or issue in an election involving candidates for office or party nominations, or affect the results thereof.”
Walker did not indicate what penalties are provided for violating these sections.
In 2009, Baldwin was elected to the BOE by a landslide, garnering more votes than the combined totals of her opponents. Once in office, she almost immediately antagonized her colleagues, first by painstakingly examining matters on which the board was being asked to vote, for going beyond the board to seek answers to questions she did not feel she had received in meetings, and especially for taking her findings to the general public.
She frequently casts the lone dissenting vote on resolutions she says have not been resolved to her satisfaction, and often finds herself being called down by board chairman Bob Rhinehart. Her chief antagonist has become board member Amy Churchill, who at the last meeting shouted Baldwin down and afterwards – according to Baldwin and witnesses – threatened to snatch Baldwin’s hair out.
The board was collectively infuriated earlier this year when Baldwin called attention to disparities in the school system’s budget priorities, especially what the county pays its principals and administrators versus pay earned by rank-and-file teachers. Baldwin revealed that most principals receive base pay and allowance totaling well into six figures, as well as up to an additional $1,000 per month in “extra duty pay” per a schedule originally adopted in 2006. Teachers do not receive “extra duty” compensation.
Records indicate that approximately $4.7 million has been paid in administrator bonuses since 2006, even during a period when teacher salaries were frozen.
Baldwin estimates that Murray, who became principal of Sand Hill-Venable in 2012, “would have received $6,000 yearly bonus regardless of whether she actually performed extra duties such as staying after school for elementary school extracurriculars.”