by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury
Earlier this month, Virginia Del. Amanda Batten, R-James City, bought almost 1,000 doughnuts and set out to give them to public school teachers working in her Williamsburg-area district.
She marked the occasion with a Facebook post showing her carrying armfuls of doughnut boxes in a multi-school delivery that she said amounted to 996 doughnuts, or 83 dozen.
“The end of the school year is in sight, and I’m grateful to our hard-working teachers as we recognize Teacher Appreciation Week,” Batten’s May 12 post read. “Thank you for all you do!”
The doughnut deliveries to 19 schools in the Williamsburg-James City County and New Kent County school districts were accepted. But — in a sign of the intensity of Virginia’s political debates over K-12 public schools — some in the Williamsburg-James City County system saw an ulterior motive hidden beneath the glaze and sprinkles.
One of the photos posted to Batten’s Facebook page showed a custom doughnut-box label with an important line in smaller print: “Paid for and Authorized by Friends of Amanda Batten.” That phrase signals an activity was funded by money from a political campaign; Batten confirmed the doughnut expenditure was made from her campaign account.
The pushback, which included the local teachers’ union taking aim at Batten’s voting record, was so strong school officials told Batten similar doughnut drop offs would be declined in the future due to their “political nature.”
In an official statement on the matter, the Williamsburg-James City County Education Association, which represents local teachers, took aim at Batten’s record of voting for more alternatives to traditional public schools and against collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Alynn Parham, the president of the local teachers union, said Batten’s visits sparked an email from an anonymous group of teachers who “addressed concerns about Batten’s presence in the school district.”
“The union felt that we needed to also make a response recognizing that her presence triggered some members and employees,” Parham said.
The school division ultimately sided with staffers who felt the doughnut delivery was inappropriate.
“While we certainly appreciate the gesture of thanks, several members of our staff have indicated the purpose of the gift appeared to champion the Delegate’s campaign and/or be an attempt to solicit votes (ex. flyer indicated gift was ‘paid for and authorized by friends of Amanda Batten’),” Kara Wall, the school division’s strategic communications director, wrote in a May 15 email to Batten.
In an interview, Batten said there was nothing political about the note that came with the doughnuts. Adding the campaign disclosure, she said, was an attempt to “err on the side of transparency” and show the $1,672 doughnut purchase wasn’t made with taxpayer dollars.
“I don’t know if that’s an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars or not. We had the campaign funds to do it,” Batten said. “Had I left off what I think is a legally required disclaimer, that somehow would have been more acceptable? That’s odd.”
Asked if she considered using her own money, Batten said she saw the expenditure as no different than other routine uses of campaign funds “to support community events and outreach.”
“I just think it’s sad that anyone would object to the observation of Teacher Appreciation Week by a legislator,” Batten said. “Or the default would be to politicize doughnuts.”
Batten is running in a redrawn district with a slight Republican lean against Democratic candidate Jessica Anderson, who works as a receptionist in a Williamsburg-James City County elementary school.
In a statement, Anderson called the doughnut delivery and accompanying social media post a “political stunt” and “photo op” by a candidate who has “voted against teachers’ best interests.”
“No candidate for public office is above the rules,” Anderson said.
In the school division’s response to Batten, Wall pointed to a division policy putting restrictions on the “distribution of information/materials” in schools. That policy says advance approval is required “before any materials may be distributed or made available at the request of non-school organizations.” A section on “political communications” says students cannot be required to “convey or deliver any material” calling for the election or defeat of any candidate or advocating a position on political matters.
“Non-political information or materials may be submitted to me for consideration and approval,” Wall wrote.
Batten, a former legislative aide first elected to the General Assembly in 2019, said she did doughnut drop offs in other school systems, including neighboring New Kent County, without controversy.
“I’m not aware of any school division other than Williamsburg-James City County that has told anyone they were prohibited from dropping off baked goods simply because of the source of funding for said baked goods,” she said.
Virginia has no law requiring campaign funds to be spent only on campaign purposes, despite years of failed efforts to create such a rule.
General Assembly members regularly spend money on community goodwill efforts that could potentially enhance their standing in the eyes of voters but are less overtly political than a typical campaign ad.
Those expenditures often include direct donations to charitable groups and nonprofits, as well as banquet tickets and sponsorships for local events. It’s not uncommon to see campaign funds being spent on school-related items like ads in football game programs and other school publications, contributions to scholarship funds, donations to athletics and band booster clubs and sponsorships of homecoming ceremonies, graduation parties and prom nights.
Due to the limited campaign finance information candidates are required to disclose, some expenditures show up only as money transferred from campaign accounts to public schools with no detail listed about a specific purpose.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, campaign money has been used in the past to supplement activities affiliated with Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. For example, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, contributed $100 to “Jamestown High School After Prom” in 2009 and has made three other $100 contributions with the school listed as the recipient. In 2013, former Republican Del. Brenda Pogge made a $30 payment to “Warhill High School Track.”
Batten said she saw nothing unusual or untoward about the doughnuts.
“I don’t think it’s a stunt to thank teachers,” she said.
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