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Teachers union says charter school drive violates ethics rules

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, opposes the expansion of charter schools. He says that use of school resources, such as e-mail and employee time, runs afoul of the law.

Charter schools are taking an active role in supporting an effort to expand the number of the independent public schools in the state, sending fliers and e-mails urging parents to lobby lawmakers to support the cause.

Proponents of charter schools plan a Boston Common rally Wednesday morning, with more than 1,000 teachers, parents, and other supporters expected to call for passage of legislation to raise the limit on charter schools. Some schools plan to bring students to the rally, according to an e-mail provided to the Globe that included links to lesson plans on the power of advocacy.

But some parents and educators, including opponents of charter expansion, say the efforts may violate state laws that limit political activity by public employees — including school staff — and the use of public resources for advocacy.


The accusations, and the rallying push that inspired them, are indications of how pitched the battle over charter schools has become this year, as Massachusetts swore in a new governor and secretary of education who support lifting the cap.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, which opposes an expansion of charter schools, said Tuesday that he had filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission because he believes the use of school e-mails, employee time, and other resources runs afoul of the rules.

"It seems like there's something that's a bit fishy about this," Stutman said. "I understand why they do this. It's just [that] I think it's cheating. They're not supposed to do it, and I think it jeopardizes unnecessarily the teachers who are involved."

In a letter to the Ethics Commission, Stutman pointed to a flier sent out on Boston Collegiate Charter School letterhead and to an e-mail from Boston Renaissance Charter Public School encouraging parents to attend Wednesday's rally.

Ethics Commission spokesman David Giannotti said he could not confirm that the panel had received the complaint, citing "strict confidentiality restrictions."


Advocates for charter schools — which are publicly funded, mostly operate without oversight from local districts, and employ nonunion teachers — say that they have been careful to avoid violating the law. Their actions to rally support from parents are no different from those made by school districts bound by the same laws, they say.

"Families and educators fighting to allow high-performing public charter schools to create more opportunities for the 37,000 children stranded on waiting lists is not only well within the law, it's also a matter of educational equity," said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

Despite the concerns of critics, it is unclear whether the charter schools' activities violate any state laws.

An Ethics Commission advisory forbids public employees from using their official e-mail addresses, computers, or letterhead stationery for political purposes. But charter school proponents cite passages in the same advisory authorizing policy-making government officials and their subordinates to advocate for changes that would benefit their agencies, saying those lines show that their actions are allowed.

An attorney for the charter school association also pointed to a state statute that allows government bodies to use full-time employees to lobby the Legislature.

Giannotti would not comment on specific circumstances, but said that generally the state's conflict-of-interest law prevents public employees from using public resources valued at $50 or more for any nonpublic purpose.


It is unusual for the Ethics Commission to publicly discipline government employees for abusing their offices.

In September, Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins received a rare public rebuke from the commission, agreeing to pay a $2,500 fine in a settlement over the use of his badge to pressure store owners to remove signs supporting an opponent.

The upcoming rally has been coordinated by a coalition called Great Schools Massachusetts, whose organizing efforts are led in part by Families for Excellent Schools, a controversial pro-charter group that was founded in New York and came to Massachusetts last year.

Great Schools Massachusetts supports passage of Governor Charlie Baker's bill that would allow 12 new or expanded charter schools each year in districts performing in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests.

The governor's expansion plan mirrors a separate ballot measure filed by a pro-charter group. But Baker proposes additional changes, such as authorizing districts to unify enrollment systems to include both charter and district schools, as Boston would do under a plan unveiled in September by Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Walsh testified before lawmakers last month that Baker's bill would expand charter schools too quickly.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.