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San Leandro Teachers Association v. Governing Board of the San Leandro Unified School District

June 18, 2009


Ct.App. 1/1 A114679 & A115686 Alameda County Super. Ct. No. RG05235795 Judge: Winifred Smith

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Moreno, J.

Shortly before an election, an employee organization that represents school teachers, and which regularly communicates with its members through school mailboxes, sought to distribute literature through these mailboxes that included endorsements of certain school board candidates. The school district administration refused to permit such political communication and the employee organization sought a writ of mandate to have that policy overturned. In order to resolve whether a writ should properly issue in this case, we must construe the meaning of Education Code section 7054, subdivision (a), which prohibits the use of ―school district . . . funds, services, supplies or equipment‖ for urging the support or defeat of political candidates or ballot propositions. The trial court sided with the employee organization but the Court of Appeal reversed, upholding the school district's policy as within the scope of section 7054. It also determined that the policy did not violate Government Code section 3543.1, subdivision (b), which gives school employee organizations the right to use internal mailboxes subject to ―reasonable regulation,‖ concluding that the school district's policy was a reasonable regulation. The Court of Appeal also held that the policy did not violate the United States or California Constitutions.

We conclude that the Court of Appeal is correct and therefore affirm its judgment denying the employee organization's request for a writ of mandate.


The essential facts underlying this case are not in dispute. The San Leandro Teachers Association (SLTA) is the exclusive bargaining representative of the San Leandro Unified School District's (District) certificated employees. Each certificated employee is assigned a mailbox. The normal intended purpose of the school mailboxes is to communicate with teachers and staff regarding school-related matters. As a representative employee organization, SLTA is authorized to use the mailboxes to communicate with its employee members pursuant to Government Code section 3543.1, subdivision (b), a part of the Educational Employment Relations Act (EERA, Gov. Code, § 3540 et seq.) and the collective bargaining agreement. Nonschool organizations do not have direct access to these mailboxes and may not access them without the District's prior approval. The mailboxes are permanent fixtures at each school, consisting of a wooden or metal frame grid that is fixed to the wall in school offices.

On October 11 and 12, 2004, SLTA distributed two employee newsletters by placing them in internal faculty mailboxes located at the District's schools. The first newsletter, entitled ―SLATE,‖ was a two-page memorandum from SLTA's president. In addition to discussing health benefits and a recently filed unfair labor practice charge regarding unilateral staff reduction, the memorandum included a paragraph about the upcoming school board election. The paragraph mentioned by name two SLTA-endorsed school board candidates and referred to the success of SLTA volunteer efforts and of a ―Meet the Candidate‖ night; it also urged more volunteer effort. Another paragraph in the same memorandum described SLTA's political efforts in more general terms.

The second newsletter is a one-page memorandum addressed to SLTA's members, entitled ―From the Table.‖ In addition to discussing salary and benefits, negotiation of procedures for evaluating employees, and other matters, the memorandum states: ―Support your Bargaining Team's efforts to improve your salaries and working conditions. Please volunteer to phone or walk in support of our endorsed School Board Candidates. Our next bargaining date is October 29.‖ Both newsletters were produced entirely at SLTA expense and were placed in the mailboxes by SLTA volunteers during their nonwork hours.

On October 15, 2004, Assistant Superintendent Martinez sent a letter to the president of SLTA advising him that the union was prohibited by Education Code section 7054 from using school district mail facilities to distribute materials that contain political endorsements. Because of that statutory prohibition, ―we will not allow the SLTA access to faculty mailboxes if any future distributions contain impermissible political endorsements.‖

On November 16, 2004, SLTA filed an unfair practice charge with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), alleging that the District violated provisions of the EERA by prohibiting SLTA from using the school mailboxes to distribute union newsletters containing its political endorsements. On June 28, 2005, PERB adopted an earlier decision of one of its agents, dismissing the unfair practice charge. The agent had determined that ―the plain meaning of [Education Code section 7054] prohibited the use of mailboxes as a means of distributing political information.‖ The agency also relied on one of its own earlier decisions, which held that a school's internal mail system amounted to ―services‖ or ―equipment‖ within the meaning of Education Code section 7054.

On September 30, 2005, SLTA filed a petition for peremptory writ of mandate to cause appellants to ―cease and desist from enforcing a policy which forbids [respondents] from placing in the school mailboxes any materials generated by the [SLTA] which contain references to candidates for public office or ballot initiatives.‖ The District demurred to the writ petition, asserting that prohibiting the distribution of partisan political material via the mailboxes is both constitutional and mandated by Education Code section 7054.

On May 3, 2006, the trial court granted the writ petition and overruled appellants' demurrer. Subsequently, the court awarded respondents their attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. For reasons discussed at length below, the Court of Appeal reversed, concluding both that Education Code section 7054 compelled the District's policy and that the statute and policy were not unconstitutional. We granted review.


A. The Statutory Question

We begin by examining the statute in dispute. Education Code section 7054*fn1 is part of the statutory scheme regulating the political activities of school districts and employees. It provides: ―(a) No school district or community college district funds, services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, including, but not limited to, any candidate for election to the governing board of the district; [¶] (b) Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of any of the public resources described in subdivision (a) to provide information to the public about the possible effects of any bond issue or other ballot measure if both of the following conditions are met: [¶] (1) The informational activities are otherwise authorized by the Constitution or laws of this state. [¶] (2) The information provided constitutes a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure. [¶] (c) A violation of this section shall be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both, or imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months, or two or three years.‖

― ‗When construing a statute, we must ―ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law.‖ ' [Citation.] ‗In determining such intent, a court must look first to the words of the statute themselves, giving to the language its usual, ordinary import and according significance, if possible, to every word, phrase and sentence in pursuance of the legislative purpose.' [Citation.] At the same time, ‗we do not consider . . . statutory language in isolation.' [Citation.] Instead, we ‗examine the entire substance of the statute in order to determine the scope and purpose of the provision, construing its words in context and harmonizing its various parts.' [Citation.] Moreover, we ‗ ―read every statute ‗with reference to the entire scheme of law of which it is part so that the whole may be harmonized and retain effectiveness.' ‖ ' ‖ (State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Garamendi (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1029, 1043.)

In construing the statutory language, we first note that section 7054 cannot be construed to ban the use of all public resources for political purposes.

Subdivision (a) of section 7054 bans the use of ―funds, services, supplies, or equipment‖ for certain political purposes, whereas subdivision (b) states that ―[n]othing in this section shall prohibit the use of any of the public resources described in subdivision (a) to provide information to the public about the possible effects of any bond issue or other ballot measure if both of the following conditions are met.‖ The italicized language of subdivision (b) therefore makes clear that the public resources described in subdivision (a) are a subset of all public resources.

The parties argue about whether a school mailbox constitutes ―services‖ within the meaning of section 7054. The District contends, and the Court of Appeal found, that mailboxes provide a service to those who use them, and that otherwise SLTA would have to use the more costly United States mail or some other means to deliver its message. SLTA argues in effect that the term ―services‖ generally connotes useful activity performed by a human agency, i.e. that while distribution of mail is a service, the mailboxes themselves do not constitute a service. Thus, because the literature in question was distributed by SLTA, no public ―service‖ was used. The dictionary definition of ―service‖ does give some support to SLTA's position. That word has been most relevantly defined as: ―1 a: the occupation or function of serving b: employment as a servant 2 a: the work performed by one that serves b: HELP, USE, BENEFIT c: ...

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