Monday, January 25, 2016

Children As Political Pawns

At our last board meeting, we received an update on the School Based Health Centers (SBHCs).  These contain a number of very dedicated, hardworking employees, who help students deal with health issues and provide important services to those who find it difficult to visit a regular doctor.

However, there were some elements of their presentation that worried me a bit.   Here is their description of the "Awareness Day" they had arranged:

Awareness Day is put on by the Oregon School Based Health Alliance, in coordination with Oregon Health Authority and facilitated by the Oregon State Youth Advisory Council. It is a day where all the student groups from across the state head  to the Capitol Building and help to build awareness regarding the importance of  School Based Health Centers.
This day involved:
• Contacting and setting up appointment times with multiple State Representatives and Senators
• Prepping SHAC group members to make speeches to legislators about the importance of SBHCs
• Students prepared elaborate gift baskets for legislators
• Coordination of all administrative needs for the day (permission slips for all school districts, bus schedule, chaperones from each school that were present on the day, all forms and registration....)

This seems like a clear case of a political lobbying activity:   the staff members openly admit that their goal is to influence state funding, they train and coach the students to speak to lawmakers, they actually help them prepare "gift baskets" (borderline bribes?), and do all the coordination to make the lobbying as easy as possible for the students.

When I brought this up at the meeting, the staff's defense was that this is about "teaching leadership", and since there is no specific bill on the table that they are advocating, it's not political lobbying, and thus not a policy violation.   Do you find this convincing?   I don't see any way we can consider this anything other than a use of school and SBHC resources to influence politics.    Here is the relevant portion of policy GBG, which I believe this "Awareness Day" violates:

All District employees are privileged within the limitations imposed by state and federal laws and regulations to choose any side of a particular issue and to support their viewpoints as they desire by vote, discussion, or persuading others. Such discussion and persuasion, however, will not be carried on during the performance of District duties, except in open discussion during classroom lessons that consider various candidates for a particular office or various sides of a particular political or civil issue.
On all political issues, employees must designate that the viewpoints they represent on the issues are personal and are not to be interpreted as the District’s official viewpoint.
No employee will use District facilities, equipment, or supplies in connection with his/her campaigning, nor will he/she use any time during the working day for campaign purposes. 

In addition, I find it kind of scary that "teaching leadership" is defined as political lobbying to increase funding for your special interest.  Shouldn't "leaders" be learning to carefully examine both sides of the issues?   Perhaps student health outcomes would be best served by redirecting some SBHC funding to athletic programs or to healthier cafeteria food-- but the Awareness Day groups are organized by SBHC staff to be dedicated to a single focus, lobbying on behalf of the SBHCs.

In a more global sense, this also seems to be yet another case of using your tax money to lobby for more of your tax money, which I have criticized before.     Again, this is a very bad slippery slope for us to be sliding down.   Any of the people involved can advocate for SBHC funding on their own time from somewhere off campus, but when you form a club on district grounds, using school and SBHC resources,  you are implicitly using public resources, aside from any direct money spent on this activity.

In any case, the rest of the board did not seem to have much appetite for pursuing this issue- so no further action is likely unless YOU (the public) demand it.   Thus, if you also believe this use of SBHC resources and of a staff-run student club crosses an ethical line,  please email the superintendent and board ( /, call the district at 503-844-1500, or come speak during the public comment period at an upcoming board meeting.

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