Kansas GOP newsletter warns about political e-mails from school employees

The Kansas Republican Party asked party members in a newsletter this week to inform the party if they receive political e-mails from school district employees on their official addresses, warning about possible ethics law violations.

The newsletter comes as Kansas lawmakers face a June 30 deadline from the Kansas Supreme Court to fix inequities in school funding in order to prevent a shutdown of schools next month.

“School finance can be a contentious issue, and every year some unethical hot heads think that school property is theirs to use for their political messaging,” the party’s newsletter states under a headline of “CAMPAIGN WARNING.”

“If you receive an email from a school computer or from official e-mail address that deals with advocating for the election or defeat of a political candidate, the sender is violating state campaign ethics law and could be subject to a fine of up to $5,000,” the newsletter states. “If you get one, let us know.”

Kansas law bans the use of government equipment for “express advocacy” for political campaigns, but that’s not limited to schools, said Carol Williams, the head of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

The restriction also applies to state agencies, local government offices and even lawmakers, who are prohibited from using their state e-mail addresses to send campaign e-mails.

“If someone from their state e-mail sent or did any of the things that they point out there for a school district, if any of that happened on state-owned property, equipment … the same law applies,” Williams said.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, said the fact that the GOP newsletter “is targeted at teachers, not state employees, not anybody but teachers” shows “a shocking lack of respect for teachers.”

Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said several lawmakers and county chairs had asked him to include the warning in the newsletter “and that’s because the schools tend to be the problem. I mean, I have a whole set of files of superintendent who are blasting politicized e-mails out to their e-mails lists, to all the parents.”

“I’ve seen some pretty savage stuff, you know, ‘Brownback’s trying to destroy the schools, he must be stopped.’ That kind of stuff,” he said.

The Kansas Association of School Boards sent out a message to its members Thursday afternoon about the restrictions for official e-mail, referencing the GOP newsletter and warning them to “Use Caution When Politicking.”

Williams said that express advocacy refers only to explicit calls to vote for or against a candidate.

That means that a teacher or superintendent would be barred from sending an e-mail on behalf of a candidate running for the House or Senate, but would be allowed to send lawmakers an e-mail from their official address in support of the passage of a new school finance law.

Similarly, lawmakers can send newsletters touting their legislative accomplishments as long as they don’t use “one of those magic words” such as “elect” or “vote,” Williams said.

Barker said the Ethics Commission “has kind of retreated” in its interpretation of the statute.

“As long as you don’t use certain words, you’re OK, even if any idiot looking at the message would know what it meant,” he said.

Desetti accused Barker of trying to “threaten dissent.”

“It’s not a campaign warning. It’s not saying to your candidates, ‘Hey, be careful what you do, make sure you follow the ethics law,’” he said. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, hunt down and target people that disagree with you.’ And that’s what is so wrong with it. That’s what is so terribly un-American about it.”

Barker said the GOP has not brought any ethics complaints against teachers in the past and that the reason the party requested people forward the e-mails is “so we can tell our legislators this is what’s being said about you by your local person, this is what’s being passed around, so they know how to counter it.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3