'Very, very simple to use ... and it's driving Lansing crazy'
CLARKSTON — Public education officials are using a nonprofit organization headquarted in a public school building to coordinate political activities, including grassroots lobbying and a letter-writing campaign.
At a meeting held at Clarkston Junior High School on Tuesday, Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch strongly urged a group of teachers and parents to advocate against a package of education reform bills. The bills would, among other things, allow for more educational options for Michigan students by allowing them to shop around among public schools.
The way to stop those bills, Markavitch said at the meeting, is to sign up with an advocacy service that is paid for and maintained by a nonprofit called the Tri County Alliance.
"The Tri County Alliance covers our major counties here, but it's actually an advocacy, nonprofit advocacy group for public education," Markavitch said.
What Markavitch failed to mention when discussing the Tri County Alliance is that she is one of its trustees. Also serving as trustees for the alliance are superintendents from districts in Farmington, Macomb, Romulus, Troy, Huron Valley, Grosse Pointe, Livonia, Woodhaven Brownstown, L'Anse Creuse, Fraser and Northville. Steve Wasko, a communications official for the Detroit Public Schools, also is a trustee.
The Tri County Alliance is housed within Oakland Schools. Its listed mailing address is the same as Oakland Schools, and the intermediate school district lists on its internal directory two employees as working for the TCA.
Thomas Svitkovitch ran the TCA until August 2012, when he was placed on leave due to allegations that he misused taxpayer money for years and had an affair with an employee while running the Genesee Intermediate School District.
"[The TCA] bought a tool called Capwiz that makes it very easy to do a couple of things," Markavitch said at the Clarkston Junior High School meeting.
The Capwiz service sends out legislative alerts to subscribers, Markavitch said. It also automatically creates form letters for people to send to their legislators, with a copy going to Gov. Rick Snyder. According to Markavitch's description Capwiz users can send elected officials the form letter by simply entering their name and ZIP code.
"Very, very simple to use," Markavitch said, "And it's driving Lansing crazy."
She went on to say that Capwiz has already collected 10,000 email addresses, and has begun flooding elected officials' email accounts with form letters.
"We got over 2,000 emails to the governor in one week," Markavitch said.
More than 500 letters were recently sent to Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, she said. "Our goal is not 500, our goal is 30,000 by Christmas," Markavtich told the crowd.
If Oakland Schools was running Capwiz, the amount of money the district spent on these political activities would be subject to Michigan's Freedom of Information Act because Oakland Schools is a government entity. Nonprofits, like TCA, are not subject to FOIA requests.
Other school districts also are using district resources to advocate against the education reform legislation. Adrian Public Schools used its AlertNow system to send out an email against the bills on Dec. 2, drawing the ire of some parents. Parents from across the state have contacted Capitol Confidential about receiving unwanted political advocacy from public schools using taxpayer dollars.
Michigan Republican Party General Counsel Eric Doster told Michigan Capitol Confidential that while school districts are prohibited from "expressing advocacy" during an election for a specific candidate or bond issue, that telling parents to call legislators is not a violation of the state's campaign finance act.