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State senator requests AG opinion on school voting resolution

It's no secret that Texas voter turnout is rather dismal, but a resolution that aims to boost those numbers has raised the eyebrows of one state lawmaker.

More than 100 school districts across the state (including Lake Dallas, Lewisville and Ponder ISDs) have adopted a "Culture of Voting" resolution from Texas Educators Vote, a civic engagement organization. The resolution encourages districts to put out information about voting locations, allow time for employees to cast a ballot during early voting and offer no-cost incentives for voting, like letting employees wear jeans when they display an "I Voted" sticker.

Texas Educators Vote also encourages school employees to take a voting pledge, promising to vote in the March and November elections "in support of the more than 5.4 million Texas schoolchildren." The group recommends that superintendents reward those employees who sign the pledge.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, took issue with the oath and resolution, specifically an item calling for districts to provide transportation to and from polling places when feasible. 

He requested a legal opinion from the Texas attorney general on whether or not the busing recommendation violated the Texas Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for a particular candidate or political issue.

"Such transportation does not benefit the taxpayers," Bettencourt wrote in his request that was sent to the state attorney general's office Dec. 12. "Rather, it benefits the political agenda of one or more private organizations, especially since the transportation is only provided to those likely to support and vote in favor of those organizations' political agenda."

Laura Yeager, the director of Texas Educators Vote, denied any partisanship in the oath or resolution, saying the goal was to get more people voting in general. She also pointed out the fine print next to the resolution's transportation recommendation: Check with your school's legal department to make sure such use is permitted by district policy.

"This is popping up because the Legislature has not been friendly to public education, and educators are aware," Yeager told The Texas Tribune. "I don't think everyone wants educators to go out and vote, which I find disappointing."

Not every school district that adopted the resolution included the transportation item. Denton ISD discussed the resolution at its last board meeting, but wanted to modify the document before taking a vote.

Denton ISD board member Doug Chadwick also voiced concern over the transportation item.

"I think it raises a lot of questions in the mind of the public about whether or not we're using school buses to take people to vote," Chadwick said. "It's using staff and vehicles and time. Since it seems like we're not in the situation like West Texas, where you have to drive 100 miles to go vote, I think we should just leave that out to avoid controversy."

Under Texas law, high school principals are required to provide voter registration forms to eligible students. High school seniors are required to take a semester-long government class where they learn about the voting process, but that doesn't always translate to a higher turnout in elections.

Texas is consistently near the bottom of the list when it comes to voter turnout. Nearly 47 percent of eligible Texans cast a ballot in the 2016 November election, but that number continues to fall when there's not a presidency up for grabs. 

In the recent November constitutional election, only 4.5 percent of eligible Texans voted. Locally, that number dwindled to 4.4 percent of voters registered in Denton County. In the last Denton ISD tax election in September, less than 2 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

Even though the Denton ISD board wanted to tweak the "Culture of Voting" resolution, board members lauded the efforts of Texas Educators Vote to get more young people to the ballot box.

"I think, to some extent, we as educational institutions have failed to emphasize the importance of developing a civic culture," board member Jim Alexander said. "I'm really enthusiastic about the momentum behind this idea and I think we ought to take it and run with it."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.