Parent leaders walk fine line between endorsements, sharing info

It’s clear that many local parents are passionate about next month’s Los Altos School District Board of Trustees election – and some of those in leadership roles appear to be blurring the lines between sharing information and endorsing candidates.

Nonprofit organizations with a tax-exempt 501(c)3 status, such as the Los Altos Educational Foundation and local PTAs, have limitations when it comes to endorsements. IRS regulations permit them to endorse measures but not specific candidates. Doing so – directly or indirectly – could put their tax-exempt status at risk.

Local parents often wear several hats – volunteer leader, fundraiser and private individual – leading to questions about how they should sign their emails and where they may post information during what has been a heated campaign.

Kristine Bardman, co-president of the Los Altos Educational Foundation, recently sent an email with details about a coffee for two of the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees candidates, Pablo Luther and Steve Taglio. She signed her name at the bottom of the email with her title as co-president of the foundation.

Bardman said she had been writing educational foundation emails all morning and signed that email with her title out of habit.

“I did it by accident,” she said. “I did not mean it as an endorsement. When I sent out that note from my personal email address to a neighborhood group, Nextdoor Los Altos, I was simply forwarding an invitation from a friend who was hosting an event at a private residence.”

Another posting in question came from the president of the Los Altos Individualized Education PTA (IEPTA), a special-education PTA in the school district. Posting through the group’s official Yahoo Group, IEPTA president Isabel Damian included text from the parent group LASD Voices’ endorsement letter for the school district board, the Los Altos City Council and the local seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Damian had the post removed from the Yahoo Group after she realized it wasn’t aligned with the IEPTA’s mission.

“The IEPTA posted a forwarded message with no commentary or signature,” Damian said. “After realizing there could be a problem with that, we took the posting down. We are moving forward with how we can best support children with special needs within the Los Altos School District.”

Last week, Egan Junior High PTA Co-President Kim Albright posted a message in an Egan Community Yahoo Group stating that the Huttlinger Alliance, a parent group that has made candidate endorsements, was looking for parents to distribute fliers about its endorsements. Albright included a disclaimer in her post. Albright used her personal email address and did not sign the post as PTA Co-President.

“Full disclosure, this is NOT a PTA-sponsored event but a community interest opportunity,” the disclaimer stated.

In addition to the emails, parents have hosted candidate meet-and-greet events on local school campuses. The events did not include all the candidates in the local races – only Steve Taglio and Pablo Luther from the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees race and Jerry Sorensen from the Los Altos City Council race.

District Superintendent Jeff Baier said these are not district-sponsored events and pointed out that anyone can use district facilities – including those hosting political events. The district charges a fee for use of the schools’ multipurpose rooms.

“Our schools are community resources and we are open to their being used by the community whenever it doesn’t interfere with our school function,” he said.

Brooke Schiller, Los Altos Educational Foundation co-president, hosted a coffee for Sorensen at Springer. She said she paid for the space and completed a district facilities-use agreement, as required by the district.

“I was asked by only one candidate to host a coffee, and since I supported him, I said yes,” Schiller said. “Any communication from me about this event specifically stated that I was writing as a Los Altos resident, parent and/or neighbor. Los Altos Educational Foundation was never mentioned.”

Local parent Laura Orella planned a Los Altos School District board race meet-and-greet event at Loyola School – inviting all the candidates – but said she moved it to Rancho Shopping Center.

“I was trying to be all-inclusive,” she said. “But I didn’t want Loyola being perceived as favoring one candidate over another.”

Orella attributed the heightened interest in the election to the dispute over facilities and space between the school district and Bullis Charter School, which has left many families uncertain about the future of their children’s schools.

“People are very tuned in and concerned (about) whether they are going to have to fight to keep their home schools open,” she said.

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