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School Start Time Roadmap

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John Garcia, MD
Pediatric Sleep Specialist
Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare

Many schools in Minnesota have moved from whether a later high school start time is indicated to how this can be implemented. The empirical research of Kyla Wahlstrom Ph.D. from the CAREI Center at the University of Minnesota is well-known to educators nationally. Reliable evidence links the 8:30 AM and later high school start time to decreased teen car crashes, decreased depression and improved academic performance. The insight of Dr. Wahlstrom has identified these three areas closest to the hearts of teen parents. Translating Dr. Wahlstrom’s work into change in schools has been the work of many over the past several years. This translation recognizes that each school lies upon a readiness for change continuum. Readiness for change is multifactorial. Factors include the tolerance of change in the larger community, willingness of superintendents to spend political capital, presence of support from medical and educational experts, as well as openness of parents to struggle and dialogue. The motivation for change is unique in each community. Negative outcomes imagined by opponents to change are often not borne out in reality. Two groups often resisting change are parents of younger children and athletics enthusiasts. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Strategies for implementing change are reviewed here.

When the issue of school start times was first discussed, there was some consideration of advocating for state legislation that would enact an 8:30 AM or later start time for high schools. This was in part driven by knowledge of the experience in other states. For example, in Pulaski County, Arkansas the later school start time was initiated not by local school administrators but by the State Commissioner of the Department of Education. In conversation with Twin Cities school officials, it became clear that state-level action would disregard a core value of Minnesota school systems—local control. Recognizing local control while simultaneously encouraging a later school start time in as many high schools as possible, as quickly as possible, has been a creative tension. It has required the concurrent use of diverse strategies including education through use of a tool kit, leading discussions with parents, and working collaboratively with school administrators to help craft a message specific to local needs. The strategies for changing the start time are as diverse as the schools. This is in part due to the lack of research in measuring outcomes associated with a given strategy1.

The MN Sleep Society School Start Time work group emphasizes a continuum of change model that begins with awareness supporting commitment leading to action whose ultimate fruition is leading others to move along the same continuum. A similar continuum is well known to schools. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) uses very similar language in its promotion of cultural pluralism that it calls “Awareness to Commitment to Action”2. To facilitate movement along the continuum the MN Sleep Society work group is creating a Tool Kit. The Tool Kit is a valuable resource especially when encountering someone early in the continuum of change known as precontemplation. It provides foundational resources when encountering those who might endorse ineffective strategies such as trying harder to sleep or using caffeine to combat tiredness. Once these sometimes formidable cultural stumbling blocks have been patiently deconstructed, healthy science-based realities are there for the asking. One of the most powerful is none other than the Center for Disease Control arguably the most powerful voice of biomedical reason in America. The CDC’s own movement on the continuum was fostered by several of the members of the MN Sleep Society work group in 2014, leading the CDC to recommend that

“…middle and high schools push back start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. Noting insufficient sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks such as being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs – as well as poor academic performance.”

The early action phase is known as preparation. In the preparation phase three groups come together: first, school officials, board members and teachers; second, parents and teens; and third, experts and medical providers. Early conversations with teachers from elementary, middle schools, and high schools can quickly address concerns. Teachers may be concerned about loss of time with their own young children. Experience speaks otherwise. Teachers with a later school start time can still adjust their schedule to complete work in the morning. Others follow the lead of their students and get more sleep. In practice, teachers have not substantially resisted this change1,3. Listening sessions led by the school board are a creative strategy. Sessions give parents an opportunity to lift up issues that might not have been apparent when scenarios were drafted. Parents of younger children may emphasize issues such as after school child care since starting school earlier for younger children also means ending the day earlier. Getting up earlier means putting children to bed earlier which decreases evening family time4. While after school activities are important to some, they may not stand up in light of the biologic realities of sleep debt and its well-documented consequences. In addition, some schools have seen improved athletic performance3. Building on the pre-existing studies identifying the association between sleep deprivation and poor psychomotor coordination, recent studies have revealed that sleep deprived athletes are injured more frequently. In one example injuries were four times more common in players reporting six hours of sleep than those getting nine5. Teens talking about their own experiences of insufficient sleep and its consequences provide a “report from the trenches” point of view that can move a group of listeners from disagreement about the finer details to action energized by empathy. In the Twin Cities experience the inclusion of local pediatricians provided validity. While regional sleep experts can be helpful, the history of trust that local pediatricians provide acts as a foundation for quick and sustained action. Minnesota pediatricians are supported by both the August 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement and the June 2016 American Medical Association Statement on School Start Times as well as the Minnesota Sleep Society. In the planning phase, transportation issues are addressed. There are plenty of examples of changes in transportation being cost neutral or better. In fact, cost savings as a result of increasing the number of busing tiers was “the most prominent benefit (and may have been the real driver for the change in some cases)”1.

In time the listening sessions have gathered their information. Pros and cons have been weighed. Few things are more tedious than a process trapped in endless preparation phase. This is similar to a doctor ordering endless tests to be sure of a diagnosis while the patient is suffering from a debilitating disease for which effective treatments are known. In the end a leader should make a conscious public decision. This is called a go point by Michael Useem6. Dr. Chace Anderson, in his 2015 presentation to the Wayzata board, had the courage to recognize that the future has no time of 100% certainty and comfort3. The go point marks the transition from preparation to action. There has been enough success in the action phase in Minnesota to describe a timeline, with details in the Tool Kit and a summary provided as follows. Late spring through fall, a stakeholder group is formed and meetings are held. Several different scenarios should be drafted for the purpose of discussion. A recommendation is presented to the decision authority (the superintendent or the school board) by late November. In early December, the school board discusses the recommendation and/or alternative scenarios. A decision to shift/not shift the start time is made. Announcing the plan to change the school start time should be made swiftly as parents parents need to declare their amount of child care payroll deduction prior to the first of the year. The change is implemented in the fall of the upcoming school year.

Maintenance is the next step on the continuum. There is an insidious creep towards chaos to which the best of human nature stands in resistance. In the school start time ethic the creep comes in the form of apparently reasonable requests for the addition of zero hour classes and before school practices. Once we have learned the consequences of insufficient sleep these requests should be granted as temporary solutions rather than ongoing commitments.

Some say that a tipping point is approaching. Over the past several years early adopters have helped prove the benefits of a later start time. A group ethic is within reach for MASA. Can we respect local school control and simultaneously reach a consensus go point?

References

  1. Owens J, Drobnich D, Baylor A, Lewin D. Blueprint for Change School Start Time Change Report .The Children’s National Medical Center Blueprint for Change Team. April14, 2014.
  2. Katz L, Wishne B. Awareness to Commitment to Action. Knowledge Center. National Association of Independent Schools Website.
  3. Anderson C. School Start Time Recommendation Presented to the Board of Education. Wayzata Public Schools. December 5, 2015.
  4. Croman J. Wayzata Board Changes School Start Times for 2016-2017. News Leader. December 15, 2015
  5. Milewski M et al. Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated with Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes. J Pediatr Orthop. 34(2) 2014.
  6. Useem, Michael, The Go Point: When it is Time to Decide, Three Rivers Press, 2006
  7. John Garcia, MD, authored this article on behalf of the Minnesota Sleep Society. Garcia is a pediatric sleep specialist at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.
  8. Contact the Minnesota Sleep Society at secretary@mnsleep.net for more information.

What’s New at CAREI for the 2016-17 School Year?

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Kim Gibbons
Associate Director
Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)

On behalf of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), welcome back to the start of another school year! Whether you are just beginning your career as a school administrator or are a seasoned veteran, the start of a new school year is always an exciting time filled with new opportunities and challenges. For those of you who are not familiar with CAREI, we are a research center that serves as the link between research and practice in Minnesota schools PreK-16 and other agencies interested in applied educational research. CAREI partners with local, state, and national service agencies and policy makers to improve outcomes for all learners. We have set an ambitious goal that we want our services to impact 80% of school districts within three years! The 2015-16 school year was an exciting year for CAREI! Here is a look back at what we accomplished “by the numbers”:

  • 43 districts1 joined the CAREI Assembly
  • 4 CAREI Assembly meetings were held with a 96% satisfaction rating.
  • 175 people attended CAREI Assembly meetings in person.
  • 60 people attended CAREI Assembly meetings via Webex.
  • 1 Standards Based Grading Literature Review2 was written and disseminated to CAREI members.
  • 1 math resource guide3 was developed and disseminated to CAREI members.
  • 1 Statewide Needs Assessment4 on research, evaluation, and assessment was completed and disseminated statewide.
  • 13 presentations were given to professional organizations about the importance of research, evaluation, and assessment.
  • 8 Research Watch electronic newsletters were disseminated and opened 848 times throughout the year.
  • 1 Twitter account (@CAREIUMN) created with 32 tweets.
  • 10 CAREI affiliates5 were added.
  • 2 bills were authored in the MN Legislature to provide funding for statewide technical assistance in the areas of research, evaluation, and assessment.
  • 1 bill #3275 (Dahle)6 received a hearing (also see: slides7 & one-pager8).
  • 14 new external sales projects were awarded.

Statewide Needs

The basis for much of our work last year and moving into future years was the completion of a Statewide Needs Assessment focusing on research, evaluation, and assessment. A large percentage of survey respondents indicated their school’s or district’s capacity to effectively use data to guide educational decisions was fair or poor. Despite substantial motivations and efforts to use data, most educational systems in Minnesota lack the capacity to meet their own needs for data-based decision making. In addition, those who responded to the interviews and surveys consistently indicated a lack of resources and expertise to support their efforts. To truly leverage state and local investments, professional educators require infrastructure to build capacity and efficiencies to use data that improve educational outcomes. Historically, CARIE coordinated with educational agencies located in the twin cities metropolitan area. The proposed solution will expand the mission and accessibility of CAREI. It will provide resources to policy makers and educational agencies throughout the state; especially those in rural and high need communities who were historically underserved. CAREI will enable the use of evidence and data at all levels of the education system and foster high-value partnerships. In its expanded role, CAREI will continue as an impartial and independent hub for applied research and educational improvement. It will bring others together to define their values, goals, objectives, policies, and programs. It will provide services and resources to facilitate high quality research, evaluation, and assessment practices among its partners.

The Importance of Evaluation in Education

One finding from the needs assessment was that 51% of administrators rated their capacity to evaluate policies and programs as poor. High-quality program evaluation was rated as infrequent due to lack of time (78%), inadequate staffing/expertise (63%), and cost (53%). Why is evaluating programs and policies so important? The answer is fairly simple – to determine whether the program or policy had the intended effect in order to guide decision-making. Large-scale evaluations in education help us improve policy. Smaller-scale evaluations at the local level help guide decision-making and allocation of resources based on outcome data. Learning how or why a policy or program does or does not work is central to program improvement.

These days, we have a tendency to want a quick turnaround on data to answer our questions. Most people want to conduct program evaluations quickly and with minimal expense. However, in education, quicker isn’t always better. We need to consider the logistics of the program to be studied and what we hope to learn. Many educational programs or frameworks are multi-faceted and complex and require several years of implementation before all of the components are fully implemented. In addition, sometimes new programs take time to achieve the desired outcomes. That means that we need to collect data, often from multiple sources, over an extended period of time. Yet, educators can be impatient. The field of education has a long history of “swinging pendulums” –adopting new programs and practices one year and abandoning them after a year or two of implementation to move on the next “educational fad.” The result is that programs are not given enough time to demonstrate the intended results, and staff suffers from “initiative fatigue.”

What’s the solution to the swinging pendulum of initiatives? Program evaluation is often used as part of implementation science. Implementation science is the study of methods that influence the integration of evidence-based interventions into practice settings. Implementation science helps answer the following questions. Why do established programs lose effectiveness over days, weeks, or months? Why do tested programs sometimes exhibit unintended effects when transferred to a new setting? The real message around implementation science is that effective intervention practices or models coupled with ineffective or inefficient implementation will result in ineffective, unsustainable program and outcomes! Implementation science focuses on stages of implementation over time and implementation “drivers” that provide the infrastructure needed for effective implementation that support high fidelity, effective, and sustainable programs.

CAREI uses an implementation science framework to assist districts in program evaluation efforts. Districts who belong to the CAREI District Assembly have access to four, high-quality professional development and networking sessions per year with either on-site or remote access. Along with discussing and disseminating applied educational research across a variety of important areas, we intend to focus on program evaluation in the upcoming year to build capacity within our member districts. For more information on CAREI or joining the CAREI District Assembly, please visit or new website at http://www.cehd.umn.edu/carei/. Please contact me at kgibbons@umn.edu if you want more information about CAREI or if you have certain topics you would like covered in future newsletters!

Related Links:

  1. http://www.cehd.umn.edu/carei/assembly/member-districts.html
  2. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_KVqfYZXywdSGR1RVpjSEs1M28/view
  3. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_KVqfYZXywdS2drcEFYa2F5MmdHMU9EdmNTZmdDbUYzWFJj/view
  4. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6xTvnFr2KjaUGtqTTZnTF9vendsSUVtbm4yNlhaa3paNk5z/view
  5. http://www.cehd.umn.edu/carei/people.html
  6. http://mnsenate.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=1&clip_id=353
  7. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6xTvnFr2KjaNjBnbGxiQzF0bjZqdWx1djlxWXlxY01GVlB3/view
  8. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6xTvnFr2KjaZk9HLU5wRnROSEpfRVV4dHhMRk4zd1gwWjdr/view

The Evolution to Team Leadership in Education Technology

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Josh Sumption
Director of Technology
SW/WC Service Cooperative

In the earliest days of technology in schools, infrastructure usually consisted of a lab full of Apple IIe computers used for word processing and simple interactive learning activities such as Oregon Trail and Number Munchers. In those days, personal computers were the newest advent in the world of technology and schools were adopting them at a rapid rate. There were no concerns about digital citizenship; we mostly worried that students (or teachers) would be sticking their fingers through the center hole of the 5 ¼ floppy disk. In some schools, teachers were put on special assignment for an hour or two per day to take care of the computer labs and make sure everything was in working order and troubleshoot issues with their nearest service center if necessary. Overall, systems seemed to run dependably and were normally relevant and cutting-edge for about eight years without a question. Life seemed good and computer technology was progressing quickly for the time.

Thirty years later, and here we are. Apple IIe computers can be seen in museums, and are a distant memory or an unknown concept for many. We’ve seen enterprise-class networks develop and interconnect our districts in ways we couldn’t have imagined in the 1980’s. The Internet delivers an endless supply of information, media, classroom resources, with exponentially increasing bandwidth demands every year. Schools also need to monitor for digital threats and inappropriate material. Software systems are continually collecting and analyzing data on all components of our educational ecosystems and providing us with trend and analysis information that is driving the instructional and administrative decisions we are make every day. Educators and students are mobile, and have ready access to devices. Some schools now have a device to student ratio that exceeds 1 to 1 and in some cases is quickly approaching 2 or 3 to 1. The days of scheduling time to use the computer lab are over, and the technology is now in student and teacher hands. Even the smallest wearable technologies have many times the computing power and storage capacity than the Apple IIe computer we relied on years ago.

Remember how that teacher on special assignment could keep the technology running for a couple hours each day? That too, is a distant memory for school districts across Minnesota and the nation. As technology has evolved and made our lives easier to manage, the complexity of maintaining, servicing and training end users on proper implementation and integration of those technologies has also significantly increased. As use and dependability that schools have on technology has continued to increase, so too has the expectations and reliance on the school technology department. School district technology leaders of the past two decades have seen some of the most dramatic and radical changes in responsibility and demands of almost any leadership position within our school systems. Technology directors have seen their role switch from one of desktop computer installation and troubleshooting technician to being a role of leadership, supervision, and decision-making, along with dramatically different professional development paths in technical support or technology integration roles. Technology implementation within our schools is now truly a team effort, even in the smallest of Minnesota’s rural school districts, where the technology director might still be a teacher on special assignment for a couple hours per day.

The key to success in providing a technology environment that is going to successfully serve our school systems falls on two simple, but very complex components: relationships and professional development.

Relationships are all about ensuring that the school district has a great team of people working together, from the technology leader, support staff, and instructional technology integrationists to external components such as personnel in a regional cooperative or contracted support from a business. All of the state-of-the-art technology can be purchased, but if the district lacks the right combination of staff with the right skills in place to make those components work together, the district has nothing but a lot of expensive machinery. As a technology leader, one of the biggest challenges is finding the right talents and personalities in people, and applying those skills and knowledge to support an enterprise-class system on a school-class budget. In the days of the Apple IIe, schools were more concerned about the names students were adding to headstones and the leader board in the Oregon Trail than trying to bring our technology staff together to work towards the common good of our schools.

Once the right people are in place, appropriate and timely professional development is critical. In the last ten years, how many different operating systems, devices, software and web-based applications have you used? How much training and experimentation did it take before you felt comfortable operating those technologies? How many times did you call your school’s technology department needing assistance, expecting them to have the answers? How much time and budget was your technology department allocated for professional development to become experts in that new technology? Normally the answer to the latter is “not much, if any.” While we cannot expect to create in-depth expertise in every application or system that is in place within our schools, we do need to provide our technology staff members with the ability to research, problem-solve, make contacts and coordinate the support or correction of issues. When incorporating professional development opportunities for technology staff, the focus should be on the most broadly used software and devices to build up a great internal support system for the technologies in use, but also to focus on broader skill sets such as project management, service level management and customer service. These types of professional development needs reflect the very radical changes in the school district technology leadership roles that we have seen within the last ten years.

Today’s school technology leaders also need to think beyond purely technology infrastructure decisions but must focus on the overall educational goals of the school district and then help apply the roles, tasks and responsibilities to technology department staff to help support those goals. Going a step further, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), has developed a framework of essential skills that technology leaders should possess and has developed a nationally recognized certification process around the framework, the Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL) certification. The process of preparing for and taking the CETL examination is a very rigorous process and one that validates a technology leader’s skillsets in administering a word-class, 21st Century education technology environment. The job of technology leader is no longer confined to simply keeping computer labs in operating condition and the administrative systems running, it has expanded to enhancing and supporting the education of every student in our schools at an individualized level, quite the drastic shift from where we were just three decades ago.

MASA Region Leaders

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Region 1

Chair, Beth Giese, Superintendent
Cannon Falls Area Schools
giese.beth@cf.k12.mn.us

Past Chair & MASA Executive Committee Liaison, Chair-Elect, Jeff Elstad, Superintendent
Byron Public Schools
jeff.elstad@byron.k12.mn.us

Secretary-Treasurer, Suzanne Riley, Executive Director
Southeast Service Cooperative
sriley@ssc.coop

Edward Harris, Superintendent
Chatfield Public Schools
eharris@chatfield.k12.mn.us

Mark Matuska, Superintendent
Kasson-Mantorville Public Schools
m.matuska@komets.k12.mn.us

Michael Redmond, Superintendent
Goodhue Public School
mredmond@goodhue.k12.mn.us

Benjamin Barton, Superintendent
Caledonia Area Public Schools
ben_barton@cps.k12.mn.us

Jen Hegna, Director of Info. & Learning Technology
Byron Public Schools
jen.hegna@byron.k12.mn.us

SSC Staff: Kari Kubicek, kkubicek@ssc.coop

Region 2

Chair, Bill Adams, Superintendent
Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton School District
badams@isd2835.org

Treasurer, Tom Lee, Superintendent
Waseca Public Schools
leet@waseca.k12.mn.us

MASA Board Rep., John Cselovski, Superintendent
Sleepy Eye Public School
john.cselovszki@sleepyeye.mntm.org

Region 3

Chair, Luther Heller, Superintendent
Montevideo Public Schools
lheller@montevideoschools.org

Chair-Elect, Dennis Laumeyer, Superintendent
Benson Public Schools
dlaumeyer@benson.k12.mn.us

Secretary, Ryan Nielsen, Superintendent
Canby Public Schools
ryan.nielsen@canbylancers.org

MASA Board Rep., John Landgaard, Superintendent
Worthington School District
john.landgaard@isd518.net

Fiscal Host, Cliff Carmody, Executive Director
SWWC Service Cooperative
cliff.carmody@swsc.org

Region 3 Staff, Shelly Maes, Manager – Member Services
SWWC Service Cooperative, shelly.maes@swsc.org

Region 4

Chair, Jeremy Kovash, Executive Director
Lakes Country Service Cooperative
jkovash@lcsc.org

Doug Froke, Superintendent
Detroit Lakes Public Schools
dfroke@detlakes.k12.mn.us

Dan Posthumus, Superintendent/Principal
Wheaton Area Schools
dposthumus@wheaton.k12.mn.us

Region 5

Chair, Dave Fjeldheim, Superintendent
Sebeka Public School
dfjeldheim@sebeka.k12.mn.us

Secreatary/Treasurer, Paul Brownlow, Superintendent, Verndale Public School District
pbrownlow@verndale.k12.mn.us

Past President & MASA Board Rep., Lee Westrum, Superintendent
Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools
lwestrum@wdc2155.k12.mn.us

MASA Board Rep., Jamie Skjeveland, Superintendent
Crosby-Ironton Schools, jskjeveland@ci.k12.mn.us

Paul Drange, Director of Regional Programs
Nat’l Joint Powers Alliance
paul.drange@njpacoop.org

Region 6

Chair, Raymond Queener, Superintendent
Cambridge-Isanti Public Schools
rqueener@c-ischools.org

Chair-Elect, Rob Prater, Superintendent
Hinckley-Finlayson Public Schools
rprater@isd2165.org

Past Chair, Daniel Bittman, Superintendent
Sauk Rapids-Rice Public Schools
daniel.bittman@isd47.org

Treasurer, Matthew Bullard, Superintendent
BBE Public Schools
mbullard@bbejaguars.org

Secretary, James Johnson, Superintendent
Monticello Public Schools
jim.johnson@monticello.k12.mn.us

MASA Board Rep., Scott Staska, Superintendent
Rocori Public Schools
staskas@rocori.k12.mn.us

Sp. Ed. Comp. Group Rep., Janell Bullard, Director of Special Education
MAWSECO
jbullard@mawseco.k12.mn.us

Curriculum Comp. Group Rep., Pam Miller, Director of Teaching & Learning
Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools
pmiller@bhmschools.org

MASA Board Rep., Scott Thielman, Superintendent
Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools
sthielman@bhmschools.org

Region 7

Chair & MASA Board Rep., Gregg Allen, Superintendent
Mesabi East School District
gallen@isd2711.org

Region 8

Chair & MASA Board Rep., Chris Mills, Superintendent
Stephen-Argyle Central Schools
cmills@sac.k12.mn.us

Bruce Jensen, Executive Director
Northwest Service Cooperative
bjensen@nw-service.k12.mn.us

James Guetter, Superintendent
Red Lake County Central & Red Lake Falls Schools
rlccsupt@gvtel.com

Region 9

Chair, John Schultz, Superintendent
Hopkins Public Schools
john.schultz@hopkinsschools.org

Brian Corlett, Superintendent
Central Public Schools
bcorlett@central.k12.mn.us

Connie Hayes, Superintendent
NE Metro 916 Intermediate District
connie.hayes@nemetro.k12.mn.us

Julie Frame, Executive Director
Executive Director
julie.frame@metroecsu.org

Political Activity of School District Employees – An Election Year Q & A

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Gregory S. Madsen
Education Law Attorney
Kennedy & Graven, Chartered

November elections—particularly in the wake of a rancorous presidential campaign or when a referendum is on the ballot—create unique dilemmas for public school districts. They must remain politically neutral without impermissibly infringing upon their employees’ rights to free speech and association. This sometimes delicate balance can be maintained if certain legal principles are followed.

Public school board members and school district employees should understand that the law limits, to some degree, their right to personal political expression. State law prohibits school district funds from being used to support political candidates, parties, or issues. The Minnesota fair campaign law forbids school district board members and employees from using “official authority or influence to compel a person to apply for membership in or become a member of a political organization, to pay or promise to pay a political contribution, or to take part in political activity.”

The same law, however, specifically prohibits school districts from imposing or enforcing additional limitations on the political activities of their employees. Outside of district board rooms and school classrooms, board members and employees may otherwise engage in political activities on the same basis as other citizens. The First Amendment guarantees all citizens the right to free expression on matters of public concern. Campaign literature and speech regarding political issues presumably address matters of public concern and thus constitute protected speech.

Given this framework, school districts often face the following questions:

Q: What may teachers say to parents or students at school regarding the election?

A: At school, teachers may provide parents and students with factual information, such as when and where to vote. They may not, however, tell parents or students how to vote (i.e., “yes” or “no” on an issue or for a particular candidate) while working in their official capacities as teachers (i.e., during instruction, before or after school activities, and conferences).

Q: Where and when may teachers wear buttons?

A: A federal court has ruled that a school district may ban teachers from wearing political campaign buttons while working because wearing “political paraphernalia may improperly influence the right of students to learn in an environment free of partisan political influence.” Weingarten v. Bd. of Educ. of City Sch. Dist., 680 F. Supp. 2d 585 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). However, in the absence of a policy prohibiting political buttons at school, teachers generally may wear buttons to work just as they would anywhere else—provided that the buttons do not result in disruption to the educational environment or do not have a coercive influence on students or other staff.

Q: May teachers place signs on their lawns?

A: Yes.

Q: May school district employees engage in political fund raising activities?

A: School district employees may participate in private fund raising activities. However, state law prohibits them from using their official authority or influence to coerce others to take part in the fund raising activities.

Q: May teachers write letters to newspapers?

A: Teachers have the right to express their personal opinions and may do so in the media. While they may identify themselves as school district teachers, they also should make it clear that the letter expresses only their own personal beliefs. The letter should not be written on school district letterhead and, if sent by e-mail, should not come from a school district computer. School district funds may not be used to support a political candidate or promote a position on an issue. Using school district supplies or equipment would be tantamount to using school district funds.

Q: May school district employees serve on political campaigns or committees?

A: Yes. School employees enjoy the same rights to free speech and involvement in political activities as private citizens. However, they must participate in the capacity of a private citizen and not as an official representative of the school district.

Q: May political groups or committees meet in school district buildings?

A: They may if permitted by school board policy and on the same basis as other political groups and committees. In other words, if the school district allows one political group to use its facilities, then it must make the facilities open to all political groups.

Q: May teachers distribute political literature via district and school mailboxes?

A: The ability of teachers to use school mailboxes for political purposes depends largely on individual district policy and practice. Generally, teachers’ mailboxes are school district property and are designated as nonpublic forums. This means the district has the authority to restrict access to its mailboxes so long as the restrictions are viewpoint neutral and reasonably based upon the purpose served by the mailboxes. See Educ. Minn. Lakeville v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 194, 341 F. Supp. 2d 1070 (D. Minn. 2004).

In most schools, the purpose of teacher mailboxes is to facilitate district business. Materials endorsing a particular candidate or issue do not relate to school business. Also, allowing private expression in a nonpublic forum may imply government endorsement of that expression. “Avoiding the appearance of political favoritism is a valid justification for limiting speech in a nonpublic forum.” Id. at 1076.

The status of a nonpublic forum may be changed, however, if it is opened for public discourse, even of a limited nature. Thus, if a school district opens its teachers’ mailboxes to political campaign literature for one candidate or one particular party, it ultimately may be required to allow distribution of political literature for all candidates and all parties. This would result in the mailboxes becoming a mode for political debate and discourse, contrary to their original intent.

Q: What may a school district say in district, school, or classroom newsletters?

A: Such newsletters may provide information about where and when the election will be held. They also may provide factual financial data about the district if a referendum is on the ballot. However, the newsletter may not advocate for a specific candidate or position. Again, the underlying principle is that school districts may not expend district funds to support a particular political viewpoint.

Q: May school district employees contact parents and students from their home telephones or home computers and urge them to vote for a particular candidate or position?

A: The ability of school employees to engage in such activity depends upon whether home telephone numbers and home e-mail addresses are deemed public directory information under the district’s data privacy policy. If the information would be available to any citizen, then district employees may use it to communicate with parents and students in this manner. If, however, the information is not available to the public as directory information, school employees may not use the telephone numbers and email addresses to communicate with parents or students on political matters unless the numbers are obtained from some other public source such as a telephone book.

Q: Do the rules change when a school district employee is off-site and out in public?

A: Generally, yes. While school district employees may not advocate a specific political position on school premises during the school day while on duty, they may certainly, in their personal capacities, engage in political activities on the same basis as any citizen.

This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.

Greg Madsen is an attorney and shareholder at Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, who practices education and employment law, and is certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as a Labor and Employment Law Specialist. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9305 or http://www.kennedy-graven.com. This article is an update to a Fall 2008 Leaders Forum article by former Kennedy & Graven attorney Charles E. Long.

© Gregory S. Madsen (2016). Used by permission.