Should School-Spirit T-Shirt Include Political Candidate's Ad?

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The Roanoke Times (Virginia)
 
September 17, 2013 Tuesday
Metro Edition
 
Virginia; Dan Casey; Pg. A7
 
739 words
 
 
School spirit T-shirt in Salem ignites furor
 
Dan Casey dan.casey@roanoke.com 981-3423
 

Last week on my blog I published an email from a reader who's a parent of a Salem High School student.

It complained about Del. Greg Habeeb's prominent left-sleeve ad on a school spirit T-shirt. The shirt was handed out free to 1,400 students at Salem High, where Habeeb's brother, Scott Habeeb, was recently appointed principal. It's also being sold in the community.

The author pitched it to me as a column. I declined; it didn't strike me as a big deal. But with the author's OK I posted the email on the blog with the writer's name redacted. The reader didn't want to embarrass the student.

Here's the salient part:

"A school principal allowing [his] brother's political advertising (paid or not) to be prominently displayed on hundreds and hundreds of shirts, given out free to all students and encouraged by the community to pay for and wear to Friday night football games 'to show our community pride' is poor judgment by the school administration at the very least, if not crossing some more serious boundaries."

Now it's a column. Why? Because the letter ignited a furor I never saw coming.

The blog post drew 246 comments, not including the ones I didn't approve for various reasons. A later post seeking input from readers for this column drew 53 comments. That's about 10 times the normal response to reader letters, which I feature on the blog often.

Some defended the school administration, the ads on the shirt and the Habeebs. Others criticized each. Some noted that it's not at all unheard of for local politicians to advertise at schools in their districts.

Others wondered whether Greg Habeeb got preferential treatment, whether he paid for the ad, and if he got a prominent position on the shirt because his brother was principal.

Did it violate any Salem schools policy? Would it be allowed in other school systems?

Here are some answers.

Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, is running for re-election to the House of Delegates this fall but he's unopposed. He said his campaign paid $600 for the ad on the left sleeve. He said he's purchased sponsorships at other high schools, too, such as Glenvar and Hidden Valley - usually yearbook ads and sports signage. "Anybody who asks for a sponsorship - any charity or school or nonprofit - I do it," he said. "We sponsor anybody who asks for money ? I gave a lot of money to Salem High before Scott was principal, too."

The right sleeve had an ad for R.M. Johnson Jewelers, a company owned by Salem City Councilwoman Jane Johnson. She paid $600 for that position, the same as Habeeb.

Forms to buy the ads were marketed by students and staff via email, Twitter and Facebook, said Mike Stevens, Salem spokesman. Sleeve ads cost double the $300 charged for ads on the back of the shirt. Stevens added that the sleeve ads were a lot harder to sell. "If the committee elects to offer shirts next year, solicits sponsors, etc., the sleeves will not be an option," he said. Scott Habeeb was unavailable for comment Monday, Stevens said.

Greg Habeeb is not the first politician to engage in this practice. His predecessor, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, did it for years, at lots of schools, when he was a delegate. Griffith declined to buy an ad on this shirt because he has many dozens more schools in his larger congressional district than he did when he served in the Virginia General Assembly. "Now I have to be more judicious," Griffith said.

A politician's ad on a shirt probably wouldn't pass muster in Roanoke schools, said spokesman Justin McLeod. Under city policy, corporate sponsorships must have an educational purpose. The schools might allow a politician, such as Del. Onzlee Ware, to purchase shirts for a school team. "But we wouldn't allow them to say, 'Ware for Delegate' on them," McLeod added.

Would this even be an issue if former Salem High Principal John Hall, who retired last spring after 26 years, was still the school's helm? Would it be an issue if Greg Habeeb wasn't a delegate? The answer to both is probably no.

Does this suggest there's some undercurrent of animosity toward one or both Habeebs? That's a harder question to answer.

Greg Habeeb suggested there may be a handful of people who dislike him who felt comfortable criticizing him anonymously. "The negative draws a lot more than the positive."

He added: "I know what Republican elected officials' poll numbers are in Salem. And they are different than what you see in comments on a blog."

Perhaps he's right.

 
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September 18, 2013
 
 
 

 

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