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Pinellas school district asks Crist to stop running ad

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Published:   |   Updated: August 1, 2014 at 10:11 AM

— Charlie Crist’s newest advertisement in his attempt to regain the governor’s office takes him through the halls of his Alma Mater, St. Petersburg High School, as he discusses his vision for Florida’s schools.

But there’s a problem. The ad violates a Pinellas County School Board policy that prohibits property from being used for “advertising or otherwise promoting the interests of any commercial, political, or other non-school agency or individual organization.”

On Thursday, the school district’s attorney sent a request to Crist’s campaign headquarters asking them to stop running the advertisement, saying the filming should not have been allowed. “This error in judgment should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement on the part of the Pinellas County School District or the Pinellas County School Board for Mr. Crist or for any candidate running for any public office,” the statement said.

The Crist campaign got permission to film on campus from administrators at the high school, but that decision wasn’t authorized by school district.

Although the ad has been posted on Crist’s campaign site and on television since last week, Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego, school district attorney David Koperski, Area Superintendent Pat Wright, and other school district officials weren’t aware of it until Monday morning, according to internal emails between school district officials.

“There is a law that prohibits a candidate from using public property for fund-raising, but not just a video used as an ad,” Koperski said in an email to school director of communications Donna Winchester. “The problem here was our internal processes that allowed this to happen in violation of policy. The District could always ask the campaign to stop running the ad as it violated our policy and should not have been allowed to occur.”

School district policy states that in addition to property, no school board employees or students should be used for political or commercial promotions. As Crist roams the halls of St. Petersburg High denouncing Gov. Rick Scott’s education budgets, blurry students are seen in the background. The students in the commercial were volunteers from the area, said Crist’s communications director Brendan Gilfillan.

In emails, school district officials expressed concern that the district could be accused of “partisanship” towards Crist if the ad is allowed to continue running. Thursday afternoon, Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Juston Johnson sent a letter to Grego requesting that he “publically declare that the school board does not endorse Mr. Crist’s candidacy by demanding that all stations currently airing this ad cease doing so immediately and demanding that Mr. Crist remove this ad from his website.”

The former governor chose to film at St. Pete High, a historic landmark, because of his ties to the school, Gilfillan said. When Crist was a Green Devil, he was class president and starting quarterback for the football team.

“This isn’t just a doorway to a school. It was my doorway, as a public school kid to opportunity,” Crist says during the 30 second commercial. “I want to make sure that every child has that same chance for a better life.”

A letter typed on St. Petersburg High School letterhead and signed by the school’s assistant principal for facilities, Darlene Lebo, was sent to the Crist campaign giving permission to film on campus free of charge.

“This is a service that we would offer and provide to any candidate regardless of political affiliation,” the letter states.

Principal Al Bennett is on vacation this week, and was not available to comment.

In March, Scott was criticized for an event at Jefferson High School that was promoted through by his campaign office but billed as an official governor’s event. The forum for parents and students on university tuition was called a campaign event by a spokesman for Scott’s campaign, who also sent reporters talking points Scott seemed to use in his appearance. The governor used the appearance to criticize Crist’s record on higher education.

Like Pinellas, the Hillsborough County school district prohibits school use for political activities, and Florida law prohibits governor’s office staff or resources to be used for campaigning. In a letter to the Hillsborough superintendent, school board member April Griffin questioned the intent behind the event and whether Scott was “forcing us to be an unwitting part of a campaign ad.”

Tribune Writer William March contributed to this report.

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