WEST JORDAN — There will no signature gathering on Jordan School District property for any statewide initiative drive.
Acting on a request by the Jordan Education Association to gather signatures in support of the Our Schools Now citizens initiative, the school board voted Tuesday to ban signature gathering for initiatives altogether.
Had the board allowed teachers, on their own time, to collect signatures from fellow school employees for the Our Schools Now effort, it would have to permit access to collect signatures for a statewide medical marijuana initiative or any other citizen initiative, according to its legal counsel.
“I, for one, think it’s opening up a Pandora’s box I’m not interested in opening,” said board member Matthew Young.
But board member Marilyn Richards said she had mixed emotions about the teachers’ request.
“I’m so torn on this because these are our teachers. These are people who give their blood, sweat and tears for our students. I’m so torn on this. But I agree with the fact we are opening the door, and I think that could be problematic,” she said.
Board member Tracy Miller said it was unlikely that backers of other initiatives would gather signatures at schools or on school property.
“I think there’s a small risk, but I also know it’s there,” she said.
Paul Van Komen, an attorney in private practice who represents the school board and school district, said if the board were to establish an open forum, he recommends that it establish guidelines that ensure all parties are treated uniformly.
"If you open up a forum, you can put (in place) time, manner and place restrictions. They have to be content neutral. If you're going to allow petition signature gathering on one issue, you have to allow for it on both sides. You have to allow other initiatives access," even those not related to education, he said.
"You may open yourself to very uncomfortable topics as well," Van Komen said.
Jordan Education Association President Vicki Olsen said teachers wanted the OK to collect signatures outside of work hours from school employees to help meet a 113,143-signature threshold to place the statewide initiative on the November 2018 ballot intended to raise $700 million for public schools.
“We simply just want to exercise our rights as citizens to gather signatures on a very low-key basis, no meetings, no tables, just individuals walking around,” Olsen said.
Utah's election code expressly prohibits using email of a public entity to advocate for or against a ballot proposition.
However the code affirms the exercise of public officials' First Amendment rights for political purposes. Public entities may provide factual information about ballot propositions to the public "so long as the information grants equal access to both the opponents and proponents of the ballot proposition," the code states.
State Elections Director Mark Thomas said local governments such as school districts can develop their own time, place and manner policies regarding use of their facilities.
Our Schools Now seeks to ask voters for a one-time, 0.45 percent increase in sales and income tax rates in 2019. To qualify for the statewide ballot, the organization must collect a number of signatures equal to 10 percent of all votes cast for president in each state Senate district and 10 percent of all votes cast for president statewide. Both numbers are based on votes cast in the 2016 election.
The Utah Patients Coalition initiative would allow a limited numbers of cannabis outlets and permit physicians to prescribe marijuana for certain medical conditions. State laws that prohibit smoking marijuana, driving while intoxicated by medical cannabis and public use would remain in place. It also must collect more than 113,000 qualifying signatures.
Olsen said she was “obviously disappointed" by the school board's decision, "but I certainly understand their reasoning behind it.”
Olsen said she and Jordan School Board President Janice Voorhies had discussed the issue prior to the board meeting and Voorhies had expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of allowing teachers to circulate Our Schools Now petitions on school property outside their contract hours.
“Our options are we’ll just have to contact our neighbors and just do it in a neighborhood instead of just at school,” Olsen said.
Mike Kelley, director of communications for the Utah Education Association, said the association has given no formal guidance to members regarding collection of signatures.
“We’re encouraging teachers to be involved as much as they can because it’s something that’s really going to make a difference for education but to work within the parameters set by their employers,” he said.