Was an e-mail sent to 2,100 subscribers to a public school e-mail list good public relations or partisan political activity?
Paul Darby, a resident of Alexandria, believes that it was the latter. “It is completely inappropriate to use a publicly funded Internet system to promote political activity,” Darby said. “In and of itself, that’s wrong. If you add the fact that the information was inaccurate, that makes it outrageous.”
Darby was prepared to spend his own money to purchase advertising space in the Gazette to express his concern. “I am very supportive of the school system,” he said. “Raise my taxes to pay for necessary school expenses. But I don’t believe that school staff should use their e-mail system in this manner.”
The e-mail in question was sent from Barbara Hunter, the executive director of outreach and communications, to the 2,100 teachers, booster club members, PTA officers and others who have asked to be included in the distribution of information regarding the school system. It was dated Monday, April 21, before City Council met to discuss add-deletes to the city budget.
“Several members of the Alexandria City Council have proposed deletions to the School Board’s $142 million budget. The preliminary deletions, which will be discussed this evening by the Council are:…”
Hunter enumerated a partial list of those deletions with the names of the Council members who proposed them attached. She included one addition, $70,000 for improvements to the rowing facility, as well. Hunter’s message concluded, “If you wish to voice your concerns about these proposed changes, please visit (the city’s web site) or e-mail City Council members. City Council will vote on the final budget on Tuesday, April 29…”
BOARD MEMBER Mark Wilkoff does not believe that Hunter’s e-mail violated Board policy. “I, of course, would have to look at the policy to say for sure but, based on my recollection, I do not believe that this was a violation of our policy,” Wilkoff said. “I do believe that it is appropriate to maintain a subscriber list of this type and to communicate with them about issues of importance to the schools.”
Mayor Kerry J. Donley disagreed. “I do not believe that it is appropriate for a school professional to disseminate information about the City Council’s budget process via a school system e-mail subscriber list,” he said. “I expressed my concern about this to the chairman of the School Board and to the superintendent. Urging people to contact Council members makes the message political. I can assure you that city staff would not be permitted to send out a mass e-mail of this type.”
Board Chairman Mark Eaton can see both sides of the issue. “No I don’t believe it does constitute a misuse of a publicly-funded e-mail system because of the intent and the content which were evidently meant to provide information of interest to this audience,” he said. “ However, I can understand, in retrospect, that it could be viewed as a misuse because the message contained selections from a longer public document and because it urged a course of political action.”
DARBY WOULD like to know who authorized the e-mail. An e-mail from Board member Stephen J. Kenealy to the Board and the superintendent, dated April 21, may provide the answer. It read in part: “This should be interesting. Time for the school’s community to heat up. Becky, can you get this to the key communicators list with an indication as to what the proposed reductions will mean to the school’s operating budget?”
Those who have asked to be allowed to respond or clarify Hunter’s e-mail have been told that the list is not available. When Councilwoman Claire Eberwein saw the e-mail, she asked Board chairman Mark Eaton for a copy of the list so that she could clarify her position.
“Mr. Eaton promised me access to the school e-mail list and what I finally received on April 29 was a list of mailing addresses for the key communicators list,” Eberwein said. Eaton has yet to provide the actual e-mail list to whom Hunter sent her April 21 message.
“I understand that you seek access to the school system’s subscriber-generated list of e-mail addresses,” Eaton wrote to Eberwein in an e-mail dated April 29. “When you and I talked I did not know that the subscriber list is distinct from what is commonly referred to as the “key communicators list” or the folks in whose direction the school system pushes information.
"I think that the distinction may be that the subscriber list is composed of people who have asked for information from the school system, while the key communicators list is the group that the school system sends information to as a matter of course…”
Dick Walker, a member of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce Board agrees with Darby. “This is just a complete misuse of a publicly-funded system,” he said.
In the meantime, the school budget was cut by a net $230,000 and the School Board election will be held on May 6.