Judge takes dim view of election banners on campuses, but they stay for now

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Orleans Parish School Board employees  can’t hang any more signs from board property urging people to vote on an upcoming tax measure to benefit schools, but neither do they have to take down existing signs, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The signs don’t explicitly ask people to vote for the measure, but Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Tiffany Chase noted they’re all smiling and holding their thumbs up.

The banners tell people to “Vote Dec. 6” and say that the millage is “Not a tax increase.”

One of the signs in question hangs near the busy intersection of South Carrollton Avenue and St. Charles Avenue, in front of what most recently was a campus of Audubon elementary

One of the signs in question hangs near the busy intersection of South Carrollton Avenue and St. Charles Avenue, in front of what most recently was a campus of Audubon elementary

Orleans Parish School Board attorney Bill Aaron said those signs would remain in place at least until another hearing can be held Monday. Today’s narrow action was a hearing on granting a temporary restraining order against more going up, part of a lawsuit filed by attorney Willie Zanders. He said he is representing an organization called Justice and Beyond, as well as a coalition of others, including religious, community, labor, civil-rights and youth organizations.

He was also hoping to get the existing signs taken down.

At question is who controls the buildings where the signs are hanging, and whether that is a use of public funds to advocate on behalf of an issue. Public agencies are permitted to run educational campaigns about such ballot measures, but they can’t encourage or discourage a position. Charter schools are public entities.

Driving down South Carrollton Avenue on Monday, banners could be seen hanging on Esperanza Charter School’s fence, and in front of the old Carrollton Courthouse, owned by the School Board and used recently by Audubon elementary.

No one in court could say how many signs are hanging on school properties across the city, though references were also made to banners at Pierre Capdau Elementary and Harriet Tubman Charter School.

Zanders stressed the matter’s urgency despite it being a holiday week.

“People are voting now,” Zanders said.

Early voting for the Dec. 6 election opened Nov. 22 and runs through Saturday.

The tax in question would rededicate money now used to pay down bond debt to a new fund specifically for school facility upkeep. The tax has drawn some unlikely opponents — School Board members — because it will transfer a portion of the funds to the Recovery School District.

In many cases the RSD controls buildings owned by School Board. This further complicated the case Tuesday as Chase sought to determine just who was in charge of hanging up these banners.

“What we need to do is figure out who has control,” Chase said, readily admitting she did not know who controlled the buildings.

The School Board is named in the suit along with interim Superintendent Stan Smith. But the RSD also oversees charter schools occupying dozens of Orleans Parish owned facilities. For instance, Esperanza Charter with a banner is an RSD charter overseen by the Choice Foundation board.

A disclosure on the banners say they were paid for by the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and that no public money was spent in producing them. Attorney Lee Reid is representing the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and its Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley, both named as defendants in the suit.

Reid said the association hasn’t put any signs on public buildings, and the judge agreed that the association’s involvement is not an issue.

“They can pay for the banners,” Chase said. “That is their constitutional right.”

Attorneys met privately with the judge in her chambers for an hour before the judge issued the temporary restraining order.

In the hallway outside the courtroom after the ruling was issued, Zanders said he will be adding individual charter schools and likely Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard to the lawsuit. He also said the charter school association will be providing him with the names of schools that requested banners.

Also at question is whether the schools with signs are polling places. That would be illegal, Chase said, but that issue was not addressed in the ruling.

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