Questions are being raised about whether grass roots advocacy group Support Our Schools Wauwatosa — an organization that has fought for increased education funding in the state budget — is justified in its use of district facilities and access to school email lists.
While some school officials said the group's access to the resources align with district policies, one local parent remains concerned about the use.
"I have a problem with them using any taxpayer-funded location and email lists from the superintendent," said Wauwatosa parent Paris Procopis. "They should not be allowed to do that."
Procopis, a self-proclaimed politically active conservative, said SOS Wauwatosa is, in fact, partisan, despite its mission statement that declares otherwise.
"The issue isn't that they're ideologically different from me, it's that they're using school facilities to promote an agenda," he said.
An online newsletter sent to parents of Longfellow Middle School students in December included a link to SOS Wauwatosa's website. Procopis has asked district officials to stop including such links on PTA Web pages and that all SOS Wauwatosa events on school property be canceled "unless there is representation and equal access from opposing viewpoints," according to an email he sent to the school board and superintendent in December.
Procopis said he respects the organization's right to state its case, but is not in favor of them using taxpayer-funded facilities and email lists to do so.
Further, Procopis said he has been blocked from commenting on the group's public Facebook page, which has nearly 1,300 followers, after he questioned why the organization is allowed access to public school facilities.
"They blocked me," he said. "They don't want to have any sort of discourse."
A post by Procopis to the SOS Wauwatosa's Facebook page in December read, "Why is SOS, the teachers union funded, extremely partisan, political group, allowed so much access to public school facilities? Since this post is against their left-wing agenda, I bet it will be deleted in Five... Four... Three... Two... One."
The post is no longer on the page.
SOS President defends group
SOS Wauwatosa President Mary Young said the group is not affiliated with nor does it receive funding from the teachers union. Instead, the group charged each of its approximate 75 to 100 members $10 to join.
Comprised of a board of eight people, the group has attended public listening sessions in Wauwatosa, written op/ed pieces that were published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently hosted a discussion with John Mack, director of business services for the school district, at Wauwatosa East High School.
The defense of public education funding puts group members on the same page as most Democrats and teachers unions, but Young said the efforts of SOS Wauwatosa are nonpartisan and are simply aimed to inform the community.
Young said "people of all political stripes" care about their children receiving a quality education.
"You can't tell me that every single person that cares about their public schools affiliates with a certain party," she said.
Young said Superintendent Phil Ertl sent an email to parents that contained information regarding SOS Wauwatosa, but both groups later decided against sending out any future email via the district, opting for memos in PTA and PTO email lists instead. Ertl said he does not recall sending that email.
District officials weigh in
Wauwatosa School Board President Mary Jo Randall said she reviewed both the district's policy and administrative guidelines and, when it comes to SOS Wauwatosa, the rules are implemented appropriately.
Randall said SOS Wauwatosa is welcome to use the schools to hold events or booths — and are often invited by PTAs, which operate independently from the school board, she said.
She added, besides Procopis, she hasn't heard of any other individual protest about SOS Wauwatosa's use of district buildings and newsletters.
Randall said it's a mission of the school board to increase community engagement — and the board is appreciative of SOS Wauwatosa, which has served as a voice in the community to help disseminate information.
"I think it's interesting times in public education right now and that's a group of parents that support what's going on in the Wauwatosa School District," Ertl said. "It's hard not to engage with parents who want good things for their students."
Ertl said he's received one other complaint besides that of Procopis about SOS Wauwatosa, but otherwise everything he hasheard has been positive.
Wauwatosa School Board member Mike Meier said it's the board' responsibility to promote the interest of the school district,and it's important that both district employees and board members are proponents of public schools.
"That's our mission," he said. "That what we're supposed to do."
Meier said the school district cannot participate in partisan activity or promote any candidate over another, adding "that's not what's happening with SOS."
"My impression of SOS is that they are an information group that also is a group supporting public schools," Meier said. "Well, people who attend public schools support public schools. I actually think it's kind of silly to think that there's anything wrong with parents wanting to gather at schools and promote public schools."
Randall said public education funding is an issue that affects the entire state and she hopes to investigate the policies adopted in other communities on the proper relationship between advocacy groups and school boards.
"We've not had to be this proactive before and I think we're all feeling our way and trying to figure out what we have to do and how to best do it," she said. "We're very used to not talking about party lines. We've never done that."