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School voucher supporters are questioning when and if Utahns determined to put the voucher question before voters can legally gather petition signatures at public schools.

But voucher critics, who include many education and PTA officials, say they are operating within the law, and defend their petitioning of supporters during recent parent-teacher conferences.

"We legally can collect signatures at schools because we don't work for the schools," said Utah PTA President Carmen Snow, whose group is among those behind the push to get the voucher question on a ballot. They have until early next month to get 92,000 signatures to qualify for a referendum that would put vouchers up for a vote on a date to be decided by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Parents for Choice in Education, whose lobbying efforts last month led lawmakers to approve the nation's most expansive voucher program, is monitoring the situation.

"I think there are some laws being broken," spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy said. "I think petitioning is going on in areas where it shouldn't be going on."

She and others point to a law that prohibits public employees from engaging in political activities during their work day.

And while PTA members aren't public employees, voucher supporters wonder whether teachers and others campaigning against vouchers are crossing a line.

Sherrie Martineau, a Davis School District parent and voucher supporter, didn't like what she saw at a meeting held last week during which 1,000 petitions were distributed.

"We don't have a resource," Martineau said. "The [teachers'] union is just taking over and influencing the schools too much."

No formal complaints alleging violations of the law have been filed, however, according to Joseph Demma, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. Any complaints likely would be made to a county attorney, he said.

"Our job is to administer the petition and verify signatures," Demma said. "It's not to prosecute or accuse in any way."

At least some school districts have rules to make sure signature gathering happens fairly and not during employees' contract time. In the Jordan School District, the state's largest district, petition guidelines state that "schools shall accommodate requests from individuals to provide opposing information on an issue."

Other guidelines include:

* "Requests to conduct petition activities must be made to the school principal or his or her designee at least 48 hours in advance of the intended activity."

* "District employees may not assist with petition activities during the workday."

Voucher opponents say they are aware of what's appropriate and are acting accordingly, but that doesn't mean they can't speak out against vouchers.

"This is not just a union issue," said Susan Firmage, president of the Davis Education Association, which represents Davis district teachers. "The people need to be able to have the right to have a voice on this."


* JULIA LYON can be contacted at or 801-257-8748.

Voucher background

* Utah lawmakers earlier this year enacted the nation's broadest school voucher program. It makes public funds to pay for private school available to all parents of public school children regardless of income. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed the bill into law, and also signed a bill that made slight changes to the law.

* A group of educators and others opposed to vouchers is circulating petitions in an attempt to delay implementation of the program until the public votes on vouchers. The group has until next month to get 92,000 signatures to get the voucher question on a ballot.

* If petitioners are unsuccessful in delaying the program's implementation, families will be able to start using vouchers this fall.