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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Using the agency's equipment for non-official purposes

Using the agency's equipment for non-official purposes
Ekpecham v Ross, Decisions of the Commissioner of Education No. 14,651

Priscilla A. Ekpecham asked the Commissioner of Education to remove Superintendent of the City School District of Mt. Vernon Ronald O. Ross from his position because that Ross allowed the school district's postage machine to be used for a mass mailing of a letter being mailed by a not-for-profit organization called “Saving Our Children Through Prayer Power.” The envelopes and stationary used in the mailing displayed the organization's name, and listed its address as “c/o Grace Baptist Church” in Mount Vernon.

According to Ekpecham, the letter was an invitation to a public meeting allegedly to exhort public support for Ross and the Mount Vernon school system, and to support the use of school uniforms in the public schools.

Ross, in rebuttal, said that the Church reimbursed the district in the amount of $1,092.46 for the cost of postage for the mailing. Accordingly, Ross argued, because no district funds were used for the mailing, there was no need to obtain authorization from the board of education, and any claims regarding that mailing are now moot.

Although the Commissioner dismissed Ekpecham's appeal as untimely, he said that:

I am compelled to comment on the use of school district postage equipment for private purposes, irrespective of whether the cost of the actual postage is reimbursed. The school district should be mindful that the United States Constitution prohibits government action that tends to support or sponsor a particular faith or religious group. Similarly, a school may not offer a particular religious group or faith privileges or access to school property that is not generally available to the public.

The problem, said the Commissioner, was that “the use of the district's equipment, and the identification of the district's postal meter number on envelopes displaying the name and address of an organization linked to a particular religious denomination and church, creates the appearance of sponsorship by the school district of this particular religious organization, and its activities and messages.”

Without ruling on the propriety of such use, the Commissioner said that “granting unique rights to one organization creates at the very least an appearance of impropriety.” In addition, “the use of district resources, equipment, etc., also raises the specter of an illegal use of public funds for private purposes.”

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