Union: District Officials Blocked Emails to School Board Members

The Broward Teachers Union has sent a cease and desist letter to Superintendent James Notter and School Board Chairwoman Maureen Dinnen demanding that they stop intercepting emails from teachers and other school employees to School Board members.

​From a news release: 

-------------------------------------------- 

BTU President Pat Santeramo said union leaders discovered by chance district officials intercepted and blocked the employee's e-mails to school board members when School Board Member Stephanie Kraft "unwittingly" alerted them. Union leaders had sent an e-mail message to the labor organization's 14,000 members on March 25, 2009 thanking them for their support during last year's long contract negotiations with the district and, over the course of the 2008-2009 school year, for having sent hundreds of thousands of e-mails to school board members.

Ironically, Kraft did receive a copy of the union's e-mail message to its members and fired back a response to BTU President Pat Santeramo just hours later at 10:27 a.m. on the same day, writing, "PS, board members did not receive any

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emails, let alone hundreds of thousands." It appeared she and the other school board members were unaware their constituents' e-mail messages were being intercepted.

Her e-mail launched a union investigation that amounted to reviewing thousands of e-mail messages, which are all public documents, sent and received by school board members and district officials between March 23 to April 17, 2009. It was determined district officials intercepted the employees' e-mail messages to school board members on March 22 and 23, April 12 and August 26. Union leaders spent several months researching and consulting with national legal experts with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington D.C. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco and learned the district officials were likely violating the employees' constitutional rights.

... The union's lawyers, nationally recognized labor attorney Mark Richard in Miami and General Counsel David Strom of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington D.C., found district officials were likely in violation of state and federal wiretapping statutes. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 amended the Federal Wiretapping Act. It expanded the existing provisions regarding the interception of wireless communication to specifically cover the interception of email communications.

OK, it's definitely suspect for the district to block emails from employees to School Board members, and this deserves a full independent investigation by the School Board to determine who blocked the emails, how and why it was done, and whether laws were violated in so doing.

But, as someone who hates excess email, here's another point to ponder: If there really were hundreds of thousands of emails sent by union members to board members in a single year, then officials just might have a practical excuse for filtering them out. Just to quantify, 100,000 emails in a year comes out to 274 a day. If it was hundreds of thousands, well, you can do the rest of the math. It would be next to impossible to wade through all that mess.

[BTU clarified the number was about 100,000 for the 2008-09 school year. My own clarification is that I believe, bottom line, that the district shouldn't be blocking emails from employees.]  

Here's the full press release:  

Broward Teachers Union
PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: John Ristow, 954-651-4401

Union Demands District Cease and Desist

School Officials Allegedly Violating Employees' Constitutional Rights

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Oct. 15, 2009 - Imagine sending an e-mail message to your elected School Board of Broward County representative, telling them your concerns, asking for their help - not once, not twice, but three times - and waiting for a response that never comes.

"I know that you are under a great deal of pressure at this time to do what's right for students, teachers and the community. If possible, I would like you to view the possible lack of step for next year from my perspective.  I am on the top step but it took 26 years for me to get there.  I am almost ready to die and I finally start making some money."

"Teachers historically are treated like they just don't count. Our profession has diminished in respect with a great deal of blame on the district and state budgets that don't value us enough to see that we can support our families."

"This is the time for smart leadership.  If I were in charge, I would take suggestions from the workers about how to make cuts.  The worker knows about these things and can see the waste.  But I am sure this won't happen and once again, the budget will be balanced on the backs of the poor."

These are just three of hundreds of messages that school employees sent over the course of several months to their elected school board members, but district officials decided they did not want Broward schools' top leaders to read the employees' messages so they intercepted them. On behalf of Broward schools students, employees, parents, taxpayers and voters, Broward Teachers Union lawyers issued a cease and desist letter today to School Board Chair Maureen Dinnen and Superintendent Jim Notter demanding that they stop violating the constitutional rights of the public to petition their elected representatives by intercepting and blocking public documents in the form of e-mail messages to elected school board members.

"Considering everything that has been happening recently with Broward schools, and now this, it's no wonder voters and taxpayers are losing trust in our district's leaders," BTU President Pat Santeramo said referring to the ongoing federal corruption probe into the district's operations. "District officials appear willing to break whatever laws necessary to keep their house of cards standing, but it's falling all around them nonetheless."

BTU President Pat Santeramo said union leaders discovered by chance district officials intercepted and blocked the employee's e-mails to school board members when School Board Member Stephanie Kraft "unwittingly" alerted them. Union leaders had sent an e-mail message to the labor organization's 14,000 members on March 25, 2009 thanking them for their support during last year's long contract negotiations with the district and, over the course of the 2008-2009 school year, for having sent hundreds of thousands of e-mails to school board members.

Ironically, Kraft did receive a copy of the union's e-mail message to its members and fired back a response to BTU President Pat Santeramo just hours later at 10:27 a.m. on the same day, writing, "PS, board members did not receive any emails, let alone hundreds of thousands." It appeared she and the other school board members were unaware their constituents' e-mail messages were being intercepted.

Her e-mail launched a union investigation that amounted to reviewing thousands of e-mail messages, which are all public documents, sent and received by school board members and district officials between March 23 to April 17, 2009. It was determined district officials intercepted the employees' e-mail messages to school board members on March 22 and 23, April 12 and August 26. Union leaders spent several months researching and consulting with national legal experts with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington D.C. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco and learned the district officials were likely violating the employees' constitutional rights.

"If district officials are willing to intercept employees' messages, I have to wonder who else they might decide they don't want school board members to hear from and to what lengths they will go to stop or even slow the lines of communication," Santeramo said. "Everyone should be concerned when our tax dollars are being used in what appears to be such an illegal way and to do such under-handed things."

The union's lawyers, nationally recognized labor attorney Mark Richard in Miami and General Counsel David Strom of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington D.C., found district officials were likely in violation of state and federal wiretapping statutes. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 amended the Federal Wiretapping Act. It expanded the existing provisions regarding the interception of wireless communication to specifically cover the interception of email communications.

While district officials regularly claim they have the right to enforce the school system's technology use policy, the union's team of several lawyers also found after examining the policy that it too appears to violate the employees' constitutional rights. The policy and its administration places content-based restrictions on email that facilitates the blocking by district officials of political speech in violation of the First Amendment.

Santeramo said the union has, with the assistance of the American Federation of Teachers Legal Department, been contemplating litigation to enforce the above outlined rights of employees and the union, itself. The cease and desist letter is intended to place district officials on warning of this impending litigation and to demand that the blocking of emails be ceased immediately.

Union leaders have asked district officials to promise in writing by October 26, 2009 that they will stop intercepting and blocking e-mail messages to school board members. If they don't, they have pledged to take further legal action. In such a case, the cash strapped district would face a lengthy legal battle as well as potential civil penalities and fines.

"We are committed to fighting on behalf of employees, voters and taxpayers alike because everyone should have the right to send a message to their elected representatives. We all have a vested interest in being able to write to our elected representatives with the knowledge some official is not going to decide they dislike what we are writing and intercept our messages," Santeramo said.


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