The Santa Rosa County School District teachers' union is concerned about a letter sent by Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick endorsing incumbent Buddy Hinote for the school board, saying the letter unfairly pressures teachers into supporting one political candidate over another.
But Wyrosdick is defending his decision to endorse the candidate, saying union leaders' concern is misplaced.
The letter, which Wyrosdick sent to all school district administrators (principals, assistant principals and district office personnel) on Feb. 7, formally outlines the outgoing superintendent's endorsement of Hinote for the District 2 school board seat.
The letter is not printed on official school district letterhead, and Wyrosdick told the News Journal he sent the letter in his personal capacity and not as superintendent.
Hinote, the current school board chairman, is the incumbent for the seat. He faces a challenger in Elizabeth Hewey, an ex-marketing executive and teacher with a degree from the University of West Florida College of Business.
Hinote did not return an inquiry from the News Journal seeking comment.
The letter from the superintendent reads, in part, "Mr. Hinote represents a man who understands education, is willing to make tough decisions and will defend our district both locally and abroad. His character is impeccable, and his passion is great. During this time of transition, Mr. Hinote's presence on our board is a must."
It's the final paragraph of the letter that has some teachers worried. In the last paragraph, Wyrosdick writes that he has included a pre-paid envelope and encourages administrators to donate to Hinote's re-election campaign.
"The expense(s) of running his campaign are posted on the Supervisor of Elections website so you can follow both those who have contributed and how Mr. Hinote is spending those dollars," Wyrosdick wrote after asking administrators to contribute to Hinote's campaign.
In a statement to the News Journal, Wyrosdick reiterated his support for Hinote.
"It remains my privilege to endorse Mr. Buddy Hinote for school board re-election and I am proud to contribute my personal funds to his campaign," he said in the statement. "I do so in my capacity as Tim Wyrosdick, not Superintendent of Schools. Mr. Hinote has served well as a board member and I believe his insight is important to continuing to move our district to excellence. Santa Rosa District Schools is blessed to have individuals such as Mr. Hinote to serve."
But David Godwin, a spokesman for the teacher's union, said many teachers are on edge as the letter circulates throughout the school district.
"By him mentioning that those that are contributing to a campaign can be followed on a Supervisor of Elections' website, it just appears that the superintendent is pressuring administrators to donate to Mr. Hinote's campaign," Godwin said. "It's an abuse of power, and the superintendent is using his influence to interfere with his employees' exercising of their political rights."
Godwin said many teachers and administrators are annual contract workers, meaning their contracts are renewed year-to-year. He said he felt the comment about campaign money was a thinly veiled threat to annual contract employees to donate, or else risk losing their jobs.
"As a member of the teacher's union, I don't want to see our members being pressured into financially supporting a political candidate that's been endorsed by the superintendent," he said.
In his statement, Wyrosdick defended the letter and blasted the union leadership for "(portraying) my letter to administrators as a threat."
"The use of bullying or misinformation is a tactic often used by this union leadership to advance their values. Often these values are in conflict with good education policy," Wyrosdick said in the statement. "This statement of concern is no different. This negative portrayal of Mr. Hinote, my endorsement and his campaign for school board emanates from their fear they will be held accountable. I am most saddened that this slanderous information provided by the union leadership does not represent the good teachers who serve in our district. Those teachers deserve better."
Both Hinote's and Hewey's campaigns have been entirely self-funded thus far, according to public records on the Supervisor of Elections' website. Hewey reports having $8,192.32 in her coffers and Hinote reports having $3,600.
Wyrosdick said the funds used to send the letters, including the paper, envelopes and postage, "can be attributed to (Hinote's) campaign fund or my personal in-kind contributions." The Supervisor of Elections has not yet released its February campaign finance report.
Wyrosdick is not seeking a fourth term for the superintendent seat.
Endorsements are nothing new, according to Ben Wilcox, the research director at Integrity Florida, a political watchdog group. After reading the letter, Wilcox said he didn't see anything inherently wrong with it.
"I think this is a normal letter from one politician seeking support for another. To the extent that the letter is perceived as a threat, that is a concern," Wilcox said in an email to the News Journal. "I do not see that last paragraph of the letter as a threat. He is merely pointing out that the contributions to the campaign and the expenditures are public record. That said, I do understand why some teachers might feel pressure for their names to appear on that list of contributors."
Wilcox said it would be helpful for Wyrosdick and Hinote to "publicly reassure" those who received the letter that their jobs would not be in jeopardy if they don't contribute.
The teacher's union has not publicly endorsed any candidates for political office. The union has a process to determine which candidates it will endorse, and that process is expected to wrap up in April.
The school board District 4 seat is also up for election this year. Felicia Fortune Northcutt is the only candidate to have filed so far. Jennifer Granse currently occupies that seat.
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.