Some ruffled by Greenwich school board campaign at Ham Ave
Updated 10:32 am, Thursday, October 5, 2017
GREENWICH — Hamilton Avenue School has become the site of recent school board campaigning that might have violated Greenwich Public Schools rules on distribution of materials and advertising on school grounds.
On Sept. 22, Board of Education Chairman Peter Sherr and BOE candidate Jason Auerbach stood outside Hamilton Avenue handing out flyers describing their plan to fix the school’s field to parents picking up their children.
Three days later, on the evening of Sept. 25 or morning of Sept. 26, someone from Peter Bernstein’s campaign put campaign signs on the school property, according to school district officials. The signs were taken down by a parent on the morning of Sept. 26, officials said.
All three Republicans will appear on the November ballot for the Board of Education. Sherr is seeking his third four-year term on the board, Bernstein his second. Auerbach, a member of the RTM education committee, is running for the first time. Two of the three will be elected.
Superintendent of Schools Jill Gildea said this kind of political activity is not permitted on school grounds, according to Greenwich Public Schools procedures.
“No solicitation of any sort is permitted on school property during school hours without the express permission of building or central office leaders,” she said on Tuesday.
She cited Reference Procedure E-051.6 of the Greenwich Public Schools Policies and Procedures Book, which governs advertising by third parties by means of flyers, signs or written communications. The procedure does not specifically address political activity or material, but it does say any material to be distributed or posted must be approved and meet certain criteria, such as being from a nonprofit organization.
Sherr said he was not on school grounds that afternoon.
“Peter Sherr was not in the parking lot,” he said. “I was on the street. ... I was standing on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and St. Roch Place.”
Auerbach was on school property, speaking to parents, he said.
“I am well aware of the policy that is intended to prevent marketing, advertising and commercial solicitation to our students and their parents,” said Auerbach. “I would be disappointed if our new superintendent is inappropriately applying this policy to stifle community discourse.”
Bernstein knew campaign signs were not to be placed on school grounds during school hours, he said.
“I’m well aware of the rules and have instructed all of my volunteers that signs only belong on public property other than schools or private property with permission,” he said. “I did not personally place signs near Hamilton Avenue. I understand the signs were, in fact, placed on public property long after the school day had ended and retrieved later that evening.”
Bernstein said his signs went out around 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, before an open house at the school.
The state has no law governing campaigning on school grounds on non-election days, said Gabe Rosenberg, communications director for the Secretary of the State’s Office.
No town ordinance addresses such behavior, said John Wayne Fox, attorney for the town of Greenwich. However, the school district does have a legal right to limit campaigning on its property, Fox said.
“School grounds are not considered a traditional location for campaigning or for the expression of constitutional privileges,” said Fox.
Hamilton Avenue School received a parent complaint about candidates distributing political materials on school grounds on Sept. 22, Gildea said.
Dawn Fortunato, a member of the Hamilton Avenue School PTA, was at the school on the afternoon Sherr and Auerbach were there and saw them walking on school property around the school’s dismissal time, she said. A few parents approached her and showed her the flier they had been given by Sherr and Auerbach as they waited to pick up their children on the side of the school. She described the parents as “upset.”
Cathy Burnetti, Hamilton Avenue PTA president, also was picking up her child at the school that afternoon.
“I saw Peter around the corner, but I only saw Jason on the property,” she said. “He was coming to the car windows ... my understanding was that wasn’t allowed.”
Parents reacted to the flyers with confusion, she said.
“The people that I talked to didn’t know what they were doing there, first of all,” said Burnetti. Parents knew the fields were an issue handled by the Board of Education for a while, so they were unsure where this new plan was coming from, she said. Also, parents understood that a Board of Education debate scheduled for Oct. 11 at Hamilton Avenue would be their opportunity to ask questions of the candidates.
“That is the best time to get your questions answered,” she said. “Catching them for two minutes in a parking lot is not really fair; that’s not going to inform anyone.”
Auerbach said, “I was met with enthusiastic support from parents who want their field to be fixed.”
The flyers outlined Sherr and Auerbach’s $475,000 proposal to level Hamilton Avenue’s field, which was used as a staging area during construction of the school in 2008.
The school board has previously considered other plans to fix the field. In February, it requested $791,800 to get started on the work, but the Board of Estimate and Taxation declined, citing concerns of cost.
The bottom of Sherr and Auerbach’s flyer included statements saying the message was “Paid for by Auerbach for Greenwich BOE” and by “Sherr for Greenwich BOE.” Sherr said those statements are required on any public announcement put out by an elected official within 90 days of an election by Connecticut state law. He said the flyers were “not a campaign announcement.”
School board members regularly campaign at Greenwich High School at the homecoming football game. Some BOE members might have distributed campaign materials at Back to School nights, some said. But engaging in politics while school is in session is frowned upon, several said.
Democratic BOE member Laura Erickson said campaigning during school hours is “not considered good form,” but is not illegal.
“It’s kind of common sense not to do it,” she said.
Bernstein said, “That’s a space that just shouldn’t be violated like that.”
Sherr responded, “I’m trying to deliver a new field for Hamilton Avenue School while Mr. Bernstein and his campaign allies (school board members) Ms. (Barbara) O’Neill, Ms. Erickson, and Ms. (Debbie) Appelbaum, are trying to concoct fake controversies.”
He also indicated he did not consider school to be in session after kids were dismissed. Greenwich Public Schools Director of Communications Kim Eves said the school day is considered concluded when teachers leave the school, not at dismissal time.
“It scares me and it should scare everyone that elected board members object to the distribution of a public press release to adults on a public sidewalk when school is not in session,” Sherr said. “Who are these people responsible for teaching our kids about respectful and legal civic engagement?”
Appelbaum, a Democrat on the BOE, responded, “It is interesting to me that Mr. Sherr would include me in his comment as I am not actively campaigning for anyone ... It is also misleading of him to infer that he alone is campaigning for the field project at Hamilton Avenue school. This is a board project already under discussion and on our agenda. A proper field at Hamilton Avenue is and has been very much top of mind for the board.”
Erickson said the field is a “high priority item” and will likely be in the school district’s capital plan this year.