By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
Kissing babies may be a time-honored tradition in American political campaigns, but residents of Burlington say the sight of elementary school kids chanting slogans and singing songs in support of the city’s school budget increase was appalling — and perhaps a violation of campaign laws.
As captured on video, the Vote Yes Unity March organized by the Burlington Friends of Education brought together the children of Burlington schools to show their support for the budget, and to sing “We Are One Nation” on the steps of City Hall.
“We have put out a call for all Burlington students to meet us here for a show of unity, to come together, to sing a song,” said Marni Slavik, a rally organizer.
“They already know some of their beloved programs have been cut. They’re really upset about losing Spanish, they know kindergarten paraeducators have been cut, and they know that voting no will mean more of those types of cuts,” she added.
Present at the rally to chant “Vote yes!” and sing songs was Zoe Hecht, a student of Edmunds Elementary School who serves on student council.
“Since we’re the future, if we don’t get good education at our schools, then we won’t be able to get a job .… And then we won’t be able to pay for our kids to get good education for them. And the chain will just keep going on and on, and there will be so many poor families because we won’t be able to get good education,” she said.
While parents and organizers beamed with pride as children urged city residents not to ruin their futures by voting “no” on the budget, some Burlington residents said the children’s rally was appalling, especially since it was promoted through the school.
“This parent got on the intercom and announced that (school kids) will be marching down to City Hall, and if you would like to join us in the march and sing some songs, meet us,” Steve Donahue told Vermont Watchdog.
Donahue said he thought the rally was unseemly, so he filed a complaint with the School Board.
“I asked if it was appropriate for a parent to make announcements on the intercom system at the end of the school day, (and to) invite children to go on a march down to City Hall Park to sing some songs to show our support for the budget.”
David Mount, also a resident of Burlington, was so bothered by the exploitation of elementary school kids that he contacted the secretary of state’s office to inquire if the event was legal. In a written email to Mount, Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven said “the use of use of taxpayer dollars to advocate for or against an article before the voters could serve as the basis for contesting that election.”
Michelle Mathias, principal at Edmunds Elementary School, told Vermont Watchdog that taxpayer dollars were not used to organize the rally.
“The rally happened at 3:30 in the afternoon, which was after school hours, after our teachers’ busy time was completed. We did not organize any of that — it was taxpayers in the city of Burlington who happened to be PTO members. The PTO coordinated that,” she said.
When asked about how the school kids got to the rally, Mathias said, “They walked. We did not provide transportation. As a matter of fact, they walked with a chaperone designated by their parents.”
But Burlington School Board Commissioner Scot Shumski said teachers actively coordinated the children’s activities, including a protest march that landed school kids in front of his house.
“One of the teachers, a former teachers union rep, marched the kids down in front of my house to protest. It could have been a coincidence, but knowing this union rep, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. She stopped right in front of my house and had the kids protesting for the budget,” he said.
Donahue said the campaigning continued even on election day.
“On voting day I was driving by Champlain Elementary School, and it was 10 o’clock in the morning, and there was a bunch of school children at the curb with cute little signs waving to people — and the sign said ‘vote yes.’”
Mathias admits elementary teachers from Edmunds Elementary School were involved, but she said they were free to do so on their time.
“It was after school hours … and, frankly, I have quite a few teachers who are taxpayers and parents in this community. If they’re participating on their time as taxpayers in this community, and as voters, that’s certainly their right.”
But for Mount, the children’s political rally crossed a line, and he said the School Board was known to turn a blind eye to questionable campaign practices.
“I always disliked the way the School Board rallies around the increases. It’s not uncommon for signs to appear on the school grounds leading up to an election urging a yes vote. I don’t know if that’s legal or illegal, but it’s certainly sleazy,” he said. “I’ve seen this happen time and again, but not the way it happened this time.”
Donahue said the legal issue comes down parental approval and use of school resources. He said if parents grant permission for their kids to attend, then that’s their right. Even so, Donahue said the use of kids for political propaganda was unacceptable to him.
“Nothing irks me more than for an adult to be taking advantage of school children. Whatever argument you need to make for or against the budget, use adult logic and arguments versus bringing out cute little furry children to pull on heartstrings.”
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]