In politics, trying to gain an advantage over your opponent is the name of the game.
That holds true whether a candidate is running for Congress or constable.
But sometimes the line between what constitutes ethical campaign tactics and what falls short can be difficult to discern — and that generally leads to controversy.
Such was the case last week when candidates for the Killeen Independent School District board of trustees raised questions about an incumbent board member’s campaign flier that was circulating at several Killeen ISD campuses.
To be fair, the incumbent candidate, Corbett Lawler, followed KISD procedure, which required that the materials be dropped off at schools’ administrative offices and placed in a stack. It was up to the appropriate school officials as to whether the fliers were disseminated beyond that point.
But when several teachers reported to Lawler’s election opponent, Phyllis Nairn, that the campaign fliers had shown up in teachers’ lounges and common areas, controversy ensued.
Lawler was quick to point out that the other candidates had the same opportunity to drop off fliers at the schools and that he had seen other candidates do so during his long tenure as a KISD high school principal.
Lawler has a point, but his long history with the district and established relationships with administrators gave him a decided edge when it came to further distribution of the fliers, as Nairn pointed out.
More importantly, however, is the likelihood that KISD’s policy is in violation of state law.
The Texas Ethics Commission stated the Texas Election Code forbids public officials to use public resources for political advertising — and as a TEC spokeswoman noted, the school district’s policy does not supersede state election law.
After being questioned by the Herald about the legal standing of its policy, KISD officials announced Thursday the district was reviewing it and was pulling all political advertising out of school campuses, citing “an abundance of caution.”
Given the potential legal conflict, the decision to pull all literature was the right one.
Still, Lawler can’t be blamed for trying to use KISD policy to his advantage. In a district where school board races typically are decided by a few dozen votes, going directly to the schools to solicit teachers’ support is a logical political strategy.
However, if there was a breach of election law, who bears the blame?
Certainly, ignorance of the law is no defense. But is it the candidate’s responsibility to research whether school district policy complies with state law, or is it the district’s obligation to look into the issue before adopting the policy? Arguably, guidelines set by the Texas Association of School Boards referring to campaign literature should have been incorporated into district policy.
Unfamiliarity with election law is nothing new in KISD elections.
Earlier this year, Lan Carter, who was simultaneously running for Texas House District 54, was advised to withdraw as a board candidate to avoid a potential conflict of interest.
In 2014, board candidate Aya Eneli was accused of conducting a raffle at a campaign rally. Eneli said that when she learned about the potential violation, she changed the activity to an “auction” and attendees were given free tickets to win items.
Moving forward, it’s imperative that area school districts adopt policies that adhere to state election law, with no gray areas. Just as importantly, oversight agencies, such as TASB, must ensure that guidelines provide districts with clear, well-defined directives on matters of electioneering and campaign etiquette.
School board candidates can’t be blamed for trying to find new ways to reach potential voters, That’s all part of the political game. But that game has rules — and ultimately, it’s the candidates’ responsibility to abide by them.
Nevertheless, it should be the school districts’ job to accurately spell out what those rules are.