This year, the Michigan Secretary of State ruled that the Northville Public Schools did not break any laws when it posted a board member's announcement that she was running for political office as a Democrat. But the state did say the district could have created the impression that the Democrat candidate was the "preferred candidate" of the schools.
Recently, at the Kent County Intermediate School District, the public school teachers' union held what it initially referred to as a "rally" on school grounds for their recommended candidate.
Although neither of these acts has been found to be illegal, questions have been raised regarding whether public schools are respecting the spirit of the state law that requires "government neutrality."
"I'll pretty much guarantee that there aren't any taxpayer funded entities doing the same for Republican candidates," wrote Republican State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, in an e-mail. "Average voters and taxpayers are waking up to these abuses and schools are going to find a backlash. Taxpayer money being spent to push candidates who want to take more of our tax money doesn't fly well with most voters. Back when there was only the mainstream media, and no e-mails and Facebook, maybe they could get away with this...but no more. They do these shenanigans at their own risk."
The controversy arises at a time when the National Education Association President, Dennis Van Roekel, is pushing a message of non-partisanship.
The Michigan Education Association's October magazine featured an NEA survey showing that 45 percent of public school teachers under 30, and 63 percent of those aged 40 to 49, defined themselves as politically "conservative." The MEA represents more than 157,000 teachers, faculty and education support staff.
Yet, in Michigan, the perception has been building that Democrats are the beneficiaries of public school districts and their unions.
Consider the case of Democrat Joan Wadsworth, who is running for the 20th district seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. Wadsworth is the Democrat who had the announcement of her candidacy posted on the web site of the Northville Public Schools. School officials and Wadsworth said that this was done merely to inform people that she would remain as a member of the Northville Board of Education.
But when it was discovered, Mackinac Center for Public Policy Senior Legal Analyst Patrick Wright observed that a quote from Wadsworth in the press release noted her ability to make "positive contributions" as a member of the House of Representatives. Wright said that this is what may have made it into a campaign document.
The Michigan Secretary of State reviewed it, but said it wasn't an improper use of district resources.
However, the Secretary of State's letter did note concern regarding the impression left by the tone of the document: "Nonetheless, the overall message of the press release combined with the use of the terms 'launches campaign' certainly could sow confusion to create the impression that Ms. Wadsworth may be the Northville School District's preferred candidate."
Wadsworth's press release was taken down the day the district was notified by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that it could be in violation of state law.
The Secretary of State's letter acknowledged that the district had removed the press release from its web site. "As such, any possibility for confusion has been eliminated. The Department now considers this matter closed."
On the west side of the state, the Kent County Intermediate School District sent out a flier using school e-mail, advertising an Oct. 19 "reception" put on by the Michigan Education Association for Democratic U.S. Congressional Candidate Patrick Miles. Miles was endorsed by the Kent County Education Association, which originally called the event a "rally" and posted that "members are invited to participate and listen and meet Pat Miles, our endorsed 3rd district candidate."
After a Michigan Capitol Confidential article reported that the event was described as a "rally," the Kent County Education Associated changed the description of the event to a "public forum." School officials have said they believed the event was not illegal because Miles' opponent, Republican Justin Amash, was also invited to attend but declined.