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Decision 2000 / LOCAL ELECTIONS | POLITICAL FALLOUT

Hiring of School Bands for GOP Events Questioned

November 09, 2000|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Southern California public high schools may have violated sections of the state education code by having students knock on doors and perform for the Republican Party, an attorney for the California Department of Education said Wednesday.

The cash-strapped Canyon High School marching band went door to door in Garden Grove on election day to remind registered Republicans to vote. The GOP had offered to pay the Anaheim band's booster organization $50 per student, for a total of more than $4,100.

At La Canada High School, more than 120 members of the band were released early from class Monday to perform for George W. Bush at a fund-raiser in Burbank.

"I think it stinks," said Roger Wolfertz, deputy general counsel for the state agency. "I think it's partisan politics."

The state education code prohibits schools from allowing students to be solicited for work in any organization not directly under the auspices of school authorities during school time, Wolfertz said.

The code also prohibits the use of school supplies or equipment--including band uniforms and instruments--for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of a candidate or measure.

But the state has no power to enforce the law, Wolfertz said.

Administrators for both schools said Wednesday they would never let it happen again.

School officials said their intentions were not ideological.

"The school district doesn't provide adequate funds for the band," said Harold Witten, director of the Canyon High band. "If the Democratic Party had called me and offered me enough money, I would be doing it for them too."

Mike Leininger, principal of La Canada, said that although he believes the Republican gig was legal, he will not allow similar dates in the future.

Wolfertz, the state's attorney, said it was illegal for the students to play at a partisan political event wearing school uniforms and using instruments that belong to the school.

"God almighty, what are they thinking about?" Wolfertz said. "In our opinion, school districts are not created for the purpose of political activity. They're created for education."

Leininger said his students were learning about civics. The principal said he had not received any complaints from parents.

"I definitely looked at this as an experience for our kids to get the firsthand experience of being at a rally," Leininger said. "But once I sat back and looked at it, I thought, is this particular educational opportunity worth the possible controversy? I just decided that we're probably better off to steer clear of that type of an appearance."

Wolfertz said the law was less clear for the Canyon High School band--knocking on the doors of registered Republicans--but he believes it was illegal.

Band director Witten said he used a school copying machine and school paper to print a notice telling parents about the activity, which, Wolfertz said, is the same as using district funds to finance partisan activities.

In addition, Wolfertz said, the students' labors resulted in money paid to the band, which is a school organization.

"It's at least inappropriate," Wolfertz said. "There's nothing in the law about a district accepting money from a political party, but here it's all tied into . . . a political activity."

County GOP Executive Director Bill Christianson confirmed Tuesday that the students were part of a get-out-the-vote effort, which the party paid for. A GOP official supervised the operation.

Orange County Democratic Party officials also expressed outrage.

"That is grossly inappropriate," said Jeanne Costales, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. She said she had received complaints from parents of band members at Canyon High School.

Costales said that finances prevented her from matching the Republican offer. But even if she had the money, she said, she wouldn't hire a high school group. "I think the school has an obligation to protect the kids from that kind of manipulation," she said. Witten said he also had gotten complaints from parents who thought the children were being used by Republicans.

Participation was voluntary, Witten said. He added that the band--which seeks to raise more than $50,000 each year for travel, instruments, music and costumes--badly needs the money. Band students also had been hired by the Republicans two years ago, he said.

Witten agreed that having the band members engage in a partisan activity would be illegal. But he said that the GOP vote effort was nonpartisan because students were not allowed to tell people whom to vote for.

Ralph Jameson, assistant superintendent of the Orange Unified School District, said that he believed the activity was partisan, and that he would have stopped it if he had known about it. "I believe he was honestly and innocently trying to help the band raise money," Jameson said. "But I think this is a partisan activity."

Witten said he would reimburse the school for the cost of the paper he used to print the letter telling parents about the band's participation.

But he said he did not regret being an aggressive fund-raiser. "The alternative is to sit home and watch the program disintegrate, or push the envelope and become active," Witten said.

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