Law says 'No' to 'No on 2' signs

Courtesy photoOne of the "No on 2" signs posted at West Middle School earlier this week during the school's Open House for parents.

During West Middle School's recent open house to kick off the new school year, some teachers were sporting an unexpected -- and possibly illegal -- accessory.

"No on 2" buttons were attached to the shirts of some teachers during the open house, selectman Bob Landry said. Signs were also posted on school walls, including at Doherty Middle School.

The buttons and signs are in opposition to Ballot Question 2, which residents will vote on in November. If passed, the question would lift the cap on charter schools around the state, allowing 12 new charter schools to be built every year.

"Parents saw some teachers wearing 'No on 2' buttons during Open House which is apparently allowable but certainly not appropriate in my view," Landry said. "They crossed the line, however, by placing 'No on 2' signs on school property. Under Massachusetts campaign law and Andover's Zoning By-Laws, putting political signs on public property is prohibited."

The effort, Landry said, was concerted.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, Andover Education Association President Kerry Costello sent Superintendent Sheldon Berman an email stating the following:

"Just to let you know that AEA members will be holding No on 2 Posters at each Open House. There will be two or three at each school prior to Open House usually from another school as teachers have to get ready inside. We will stand away from the doors."

Berman said that holding the signs on school property is allowed, but putting those signs "in the ground on public property" or posting them on the walls of school buildings is not allowed.

After seeing that signs had been posted on the building and stuck in the ground by West Middle and Doherty Middle, he contacted the principals to take them down.

"We removed them pretty immediately," Berman said. "Because they're not supposed to be there."

According to Massachusetts state Ethics Comission Advisory 11-1: Public Employee Political Activity, Massachusetts public employees may wear political buttons "to work in a private office," but they cannot use public property or resources to advocate for a campaign.

The advisory goes on to say that "a public employee may not engage in political activity ... on his public work time ... (or) in a public building."

Town Clerk Larry Murphy said that placing the signs on school property, to his understanding, "is not permissible." As a result, he said, the signs at West Middle, and one at Doherty Middle School, would be taken down.

Landry said he's not opposed to teachers having an opinion on the ballot questions, rather that "they took advantage of Open House Week to promote a political agenda."

Berman also suggested the Townsman speak with union president Costello about the signs, but she did not respond to requests for comment.

"In my view, Open Houses should be for parents to meet teachers and to learn about the upcoming school year," Landry said. "Open Houses should not be used as a campaign opportunity for unions (or anyone) looking to advance a political agenda to a captive audience of Andover parents. I realize that some of the union's activities were permissible, like wearing 'No on 2 buttons,' but that didn't make it right."

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