Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood - recurring

Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood was formed in 2014 in a unique partnership between the Charleston County School District and the private Meeting Street Schools. The North Charleston school has an attendance zone and does not select its students via a magnet process. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A North Charleston principal sent an email from a school district account Monday that crossed an ethical line, according to activists watching Tuesday's Charleston County School Board race.

The email went out at 7:03 a.m. from the principal of Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood to the school's employees. Without mentioning any candidates by name, it referred to a slate of endorsements by the Charleston Coalition for Kids.

The Coalition is a nonprofit group that formed this year with backing from billionaire financier Ben Navarro, whose private Meeting Street Schools entered a unique private-public partnership with the district to open Brentwood in 2014.

"People have asked me which school board members up for election tomorrow are really supporting what needs to happen for ALL kids in Charleston," Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood Principal Sarah Campbell wrote.

"This group, Charleston Coalition for Kids, has done great research and is supporting a group of candidates that are committed to bringing equity and accountability to Charleston County Schools. This election really matters for kids in Charleston, so please make sure you vote!"

Navarro isn't the only heavy hitter in the Charleston Coalition for Kids. Other backers include local mayors, former school board members and the education philanthropist Anita Zucker.

Jon Hale, an education professor and co-founder of the advocacy group Quality Education Project, said Tuesday he plans to file a complaint with the State Ethics Commission about the email. State law prohibits the use of government personnel, facilities or equipment in election campaigns.

School leaders elsewhere have run into similar problems. Two Berkeley County School District officials pleaded guilty to using district property to promote a 2012 referendum on the $198 million "Yes 4 Schools" building campaign.

"You can view it in the light of what happened in Berkeley County," said Peter Smyth of the Charleston Area Community Voice for Education, an affiliate of Parents Across America. "Some people got in serious trouble." 

Coalition for Kids likely has spent more money on advertising than any single candidate in the race, although its finances are untraceable because it does not have to file reports with the Ethics Commission. The group has advertised its slate of candidates via television ads, billboards, roadside signs, mailed flyers and text messages in the lead-up to the election.

The messages feature high-profile figures including Democratic state Rep. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston and former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

Allison Mackey, also with the Quality Education Project, sent a complaint about Campbell's email to Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and school board members Monday morning. Mackey's group has criticized many of the district's school-choice initiatives as well as the Meeting Street partnership.

"This is a clear violation of CCSD policy," Mackey wrote. She referred the board to Policy GBI, which prohibits district employees from attempting to influence elections "during the school day, on school property or at a school-sponsored event."

District officials disagreed.

"She did not violate a district policy, so the district will not be taking any action," district spokesman Andy Pruitt wrote. "She did not endorse a candidate."

Campbell sent a follow-up email to staff at 11:43 a.m. Monday, apologizing for any confusion and encouraging them to use all available resources in deciding how to vote.

"I realize that some might have taken it the wrong way. In no shape or form was my email meant to be an endorsement of particular candidates or a call to action to vote a particular way," Campbell wrote.

Meeting Street Schools spokesman Chris Allen said Tuesday, "There is no relationship between Meeting Street Schools and the Coalition for Kids."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.