Urging Pearland residents to vote "no" on a $220 million Pearland Independent School District bond proposal, a group of committed Pearland homeowners who are part of the Thriving Pearland PAC thought they could best spread the word at a Friday night football game.
That is, until a Pearland ISD communications representative and law enforcement officer told them to leave the property: Apparently, political signs aren't allowed on the school grounds without the school's prior approval, they were told.
Now, in a cease and desist letter sent to the school district Friday, lawyers representing Thriving Pearland PAC have accused the school officials of not only censoring Thriving Pearland at the football game, but also of publicly advocating for the bond proposal themselves on school property and using school resources, thus violating the Texas Education Code.
Thriving Pearland PAC member Diane Leaverton said the group is urging voters to reject the bond proposal because approving it will put Pearland ISD's total debt at more than half a billion dollars, and because many of the upgrades taxpayers will fund do not appear to be necessities. The problem, Leaverton said, is that the district's informational materials about the bond don't express the risk of incurring nearly double the debt already on its plate, and appear biased and in favor of the bonds.
The letter demands that school officials change that immediately and provide additional "non-advocacy" information — and to stop censoring Thriving Pearland, too. If they fail to comply, the lawyers, Keith Strahan and Briscoe Cain, say their clients will sue.
"Our [sign] says that the Pearland ISD bond plus the existing debt will be greater than $500 million, and that's a fact. And I have not seen that presented in any of the literature from the district," Leaverton said, adding that she fears voters are not fully informed as a result. "We're just a group of loosely organized homeowners trying to get the word out. We're not a large enough effort to convey that message to everyone."
According to Pearland ISD information, upgrades include $2.3 million baseball and softball field improvements; 3,000 more seats and 400 more parking spaces at the football stadium costing $4.6 million; locker room renovations or additions costing $15.1 million; and $12 million in security and surveillance enhancements.
While Pearland ISD has advertised information about the upgrades on various signs on campus, Thriving Pearland's lawyers say those signs are serving as advocacy for the bond — especially when school officials, such as Superintendent Dr. John Kelly, publicly express support for the bond.
According to the letter, Kelly said during a public presentation, "I'm not supposed to advocate for the bond, but I guess this is my advocacy hat," then told a citizen who confronted him about the comment afterward that he "slips out of [his] role occasionally."
"Dr. Kelly is clearly aware of the illegal nature of advocating for the bond as Superintendent, but does so anyways, without impunity or repercussion," the letter states.
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In a statement provided to the Houston Press, Communications Director Kim Hocott acknowledged that Pearland ISD is prohibited from using school resources for political advertising, but said the signage is only informational.
"Realizing the district has an obligation to properly inform voters on the bond election and its contents, the district will continue to do so — through presentations, signage, literature and the district's website," she wrote. "We urge everyone to vote regardless of their position!"
Leaverton, however, fears that if her group is not allowed to present its alternative perspective, voters will not have all of the information they need to vote on the proposal. She clarified that her group is in favor of funding the schools through bonds, but that she and Thriving Pearland believe some of the proposed upgrades are simply fancy perks.
"It's not like Pearland voters aren't supportive of the schools," Leaverton said. "We have been and are still supportive of the schools — but we're looking at so much debt, and I think we have to take a closer look at what we really have to have."