The Limestone County chapter of the NAACP has joined those calling for the removal of an ad at East Limestone High School featuring the words "GO TRUMP" and "#MAGA."
Wilbert Woodruff, chapter president, spoke to the Limestone County Board of Education during its meeting Tuesday. He said he was not there to question why the ad was allowed in the first place, but he did want to ask for its removal.
"I think the board owes it to the students to have the sign removed," Woodruff said.
He said regardless of whether the sign was labeled as political before its installation, the Limestone NAACP views it as political and believes it has no business on public school property.
"More than just being political, MAGA has become a symbol of hatred across our country," Woodruff said. "It's an emblem of divisiveness among the people. It's something that's used by some of our young people and our not-so-young people who use bullying tactics across the country and in our schools right here in Limestone County."
Woodruff's speech before board members was informational only. Board members have not publicly discussed or voted on any measure related to the sign since the matter was brought before them at the Sept. 10 meeting.
What it's really about
Skip Van Pamel told board members at the Sept. 10 meeting he was surprised to be there. Van Pamel has advertised his business, Veep Electric Service Inc., on the East Limestone campus for years. He told The News Courier he could remember going to football games and seeing political ads all over the place.
So, when his original ad was damaged in 2018, he decided to purchase a new one that supported President Donald Trump. The sign hangs next to the scoreboard on the football field and has the words "GO TRUMP" and "#MAGA" above the name as well as contact information for his business.
"At a time when all these talking heads are talking about what a terrible president Trump is, I want to say I support him and I'm not afraid to go out and say I support the president," Van Pamel told The News Courier. "That's really what this is about."
At the meeting, he wore a personalized shirt that also showed support while advertising his business. Van Pamel said the sign was meant as a positive thing and a way to draw likeminded people to his business.
However, not everyone agreed with that assessment. Jim Hickman, a local resident, also spoke at the Sept. 10 meeting to say the sign should be categorized as political speech and removed. He called on the board to revise the school system's advertising policies to prevent other signs from being installed on school property.
"My issue was never about a campaign sign," Hickman told The News Courier. "My issue was simply about political speech and this one commercial advertiser being allowed to engage in political speech."
He said when he looked in the board's policy manual, all he found was a single sentence that said property would not be used for commercial advertising "except upon terms and conditions as may be expressly approved by the Board." The policy states property cannot be used for political campaigns, partisan political activities or political signs.
However, he could not find a public list of what those terms and conditions were.
"I don't know what they would do if someone said (they) want to purchase this advertising that says 'Dump Trump' or 'Anti-Trump' or 'Make America Decent Again – Replace Trump,'" Hickman said. "I don't know on what basis you would say this couldn't go up and this has to say (something else). ... Surely we do not want our schools to be a battleground for this type of thing."
When asked about the sign, Sisk told The News Courier the ad for Veep Electric did not qualify as a political sign because it did not include the words "Vote for" or an election year with a political candidate's name. He said the district had previously been asked to review campus ads for political speech and removed many of them, but Van Pamel's ad did not cross the same line.
The weeks since
Van Pamel said the time since that meeting has "been quite an experience." He received several messages via social media and calls from all over the country. A Facebook page for Veep Electric received several negative reviews that ranged from people recommending no one use a business owned by a Trump supporter to an accusation of theft and poor service.
Van Pamel said he doesn't know the guy who made the accusation, and he's not even a residential electrician.
"We do commercial and industrial work," he said.
Van Pamel said the response has been "overwhelmingly positive" overall, with 20 or more positive messages for every negative one.
"Nobody has come up to me and said anything negative at all," Van Pamel said. "Nobody has threatened me or anything like that. ... I've had calls from all over the country with people leaving positive messages or talking to me directly, saying 'Hey, thank you for sticking up' or 'Hey, we support you.'"
He said one woman from Illinois said she was sending him a present in the mail. As far as he's concerned, the sign can stay up "until the end of Trump's second term," but he hopes the drama around the sign will die down.
To an extent, Hickman agrees.
Call for change
Hickman maintains the ad for Veep is an example of larger problems, and the sign or business alone is not his focus.
"My principal concern is this: You have a policy manual, and that policy manual states ... that commercial advertising will be permitted subject to the terms and conditions expressly approved by the board. I have not seen those, so I don't even know by what process you are selling commercial advertising."
Along with his speech before board members, he and his wife, Sandy, worked on an advertising policy to propose to the board. They requested any administrative processes and procedures related to existing or future advertising policies be made public and easily accessible via the district's website.
"It's not just to remove the sign, but more importantly to address the issue of political speech in our public schools and to put into the policy clear guidelines about what's acceptable and what's not," Sandy Hickman told The News Courier. "Our understanding is that it opens the school as a limited public forum, meaning anybody can come in now ... and can buy advertising all over Limestone County with countering or supporting views and really turn our schools into a battleground."
Unfortunately, news broke less than a week later that Sisk would be leaving the district. Board Chairman Bret McGill told The News Courier the board's focus had shifted to searching for an interim superintendent and how to start the search for Sisk's replacement.
Board members did not discuss the sign or advertising policies during the Sept. 10 meeting, Oct. 1 work session or Oct. 15 meeting. As of Sept. 23, a process to remove the sign had not started, and the sign was still on the field as of Thursday.
Each of the meetings and work sessions are open to the public, and those interested can visit https://bit.ly/LCBOEagenda to see each meeting or work session's agenda.
Meanwhile, the Hickmans plan to continue bringing the issue up. Hickman admitted he'd rather not spend his retirement this way, but he's not planning to let it go now.
"We're trying to make sure the school board is accountable, number one," Sandy Hickman said. "We don't feel there's any transparency. ... We're trying to be pre-emptive here."
Jim Hickman said they were in the process of speaking with an attorney for more information about their options, as well as meeting with local legislators to discuss what can be done.
"This is not finished," he said. "I didn't do this just to be dismissed with a wave of the hand."