Texas AG Ken Paxton sues Denton principals for electioneering on district emails

By Ikram Mohamed, The Texas Tribune

Texas AG Ken Paxton sues Denton principals for electioneering on district emails” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the Denton Independent School District, alleging that two elementary school principals violated state law by encouraging their staffs to vote against opponents of school vouchers in the primary election.

On Feb. 5, Lindsay Lujan, Denton ISD’s director of special programs and principal of Alexander Elementary School, sent an email from her school address urging staff to vote in the upcoming Republican primary. Including a quote from a Texas superintendent warning that “if Texas educators do not come together and vote on a candidate that will support public schools, [they] are in trouble,” Lujan urged staff to do “[their] part.” She included a link to a list of candidates organized by whether they support or oppose public school education.

Jesus Lujan, principal of Borman Elementary School, sent out a similar email sometime in February from his school email address encouraging staff to vote, even if they aren’t Republicans, “for candidates who support public education and school funding.” Stating that “85% of primary votes in [Texas] want vouchers,” he emphasizes the importance of teachers and public schools turning out to vote in these elections.

Both principals stated within their emails that they’d allotted 30 minutes of coverage for employees to go vote during the primaries.

Paxton claims that the defendants violated multiple sections of state law concerning inappropriate use of government resources for electioneering.

“It is absolutely improper for publicly funded entities like school districts to engage in electioneering as Denton ISD has done,” Paxton said in a news release.

Paxton went on to say that government officials are “on notice” that he’ll do everything he can to “stop school districts from influencing or coercing their employees to vote any particular way.”

“Our elections must be completely protected from any illegal interference,” he said.

State law says that independent school districts can’t use state or local funds or resources of the district to electioneer for or against candidates. The emails, Paxton said, violate this code.

His office argues in the lawsuit that the emails constitute political advertising and that the use of DISD’s internal mail system to distribute political advertising violates a provision in state law that says “an officer or employee of a state agency or political subdivision may not knowingly use or authorize the use of an internal mail system for the distribution of political advertising.”

Paxton is requesting a series of legal orders aimed at restraining the district and its employees from engaging in various forms of political activity using public resources or emails.

In a press release, the Office of the Attorney General noted that it’s not currently able to unilaterally criminally prosecute election law violations. That’s because Texas’ highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, ruled in 2021 that the state’s constitutional separation of powers mean Paxton’s office must seek permission from local prosecutors before pursuing criminal charges. Paxton is campaigning to pressure the court to overturn that decision.

Still, Paxton said he’s seeking a civil injunction to secure a court order to prevent school districts from unlawfully trying to sway elections.

Denton ISD said in a statement that it has been in conversation with Paxton’s office and agreed that election laws should be followed. It said it will train all trustees and administrators to make sure they do so.

“Our employees’ passion for serving our students and community is undeniable,” the statement read. “The current primary elections on March 5 are especially significant for public education. These elected officials will make crucial decisions that impact our students, teachers, families and our district as a whole. … Public education supporters need to proactively engage in the democratic process.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/23/ken-paxton-sue-denton-isd-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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