Each year, Michigan public school districts are accused of violating the state’s campaign finance laws on the basis of them allegedly taking a side in election campaigns. Michigan Capitol Confidential submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Michigan Department of State for all campaign finance violation complaints against school districts dating back to 2006. It showed that the Department of the State has ruled that two school districts were in violation of state law during the past five years because they used district resources to promote their side of a bond election or other election finance issue. In each case, the penalty was a $100 fine.
This week, Michigan Capitol Confidential looks at how school districts that were accused of promoting a “Yes” vote for increased revenues were able to avoid serious state sanctions.
In 2006, the Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools had a bond proposal vote coming up. The district mailed out a newsletter that contained a story with the following statement: “Voters can vote yes for one, two or three proposals.” The district also put on a “pep rally” on school premises for their bond election, and advertised the rally on the electronic message boards in front of the school and at the football stadium.
Galesburg resident Garry Henson thought these actions demonstrated that the district was illegally using taxpayer resources to promote “yes” votes. He filed an official complaint with the Michigan Department of State.
But none of these actions were deemed illegal.
What did get the district in trouble was a series of e-mails that the superintendent sent out using his school district email. Henson also obtained these emails and included them in his complaint. The e-mails included a Power Point presentation that outlined the district’s strategy to pass the proposals, and a statement from the superintendent that read: “… be supportive of all three proposals!”
Eric Palmu, who was then the Galesburg-Augusta superintendent, eventually agreed that there was a violation.
The penalty? A $100 fine.
In many Michigan communities, a motorist charged with driving just five miles per hour over the legal speed limit will face a stiffer penalty.
By comparison, taxpayers in the Galesburg-Augusta district ended up paying $1,111.76 to print and mail the newsletter noted above, and the bonds that the district superintendent was found guilty of promoting totaled up to $11.2 million.
“It ended up being a joke,” Henson said last week. “They were as crooked as the day is long. The penalty was a joke. There is no incentive not to do it.”
The law allows for a fine of up to $1,000 for an individual and up to $20,000 for a school district.
“Unless the Secretary of State takes a more aggressive role in campaign finance violations, why would a school district not blatantly violate the law and get a multi million dollar bond passed and only get a $100 fine?” said Eric Doster, the general counsel for the state Republican party. “It’s almost the cost of doing business. They are almost encouraging people not to follow the law. Why would a school district not intentionally violate the law if there is only a small amount of risk?”
The state’s only other finding of a school district violating campaign finance law came in 2006. The Save Our School Committee, a Hamtramck group promoting a ‘yes’ vote, was shown to have the same mailing address as the Hamtramck School District. The committee’s treasurer paid the $100 fine. Handwritten notes by the state investigator show that the pro-millage committee treasurer’s response to the campaign finance accusation was also mailed back using a Hamtramck School District envelope. These actions led the state to find the district in violation.
For a potential violation to occur, a complaint has to be filed with the Michigan Department of State. In the fall of 2010, the Lansing School District put out a flier for a sinking fund millage that stated: "Preserve Our Heritage. Fund Our Future." A school district spokesman said it was “just a slogan.” No complaint was filed as of Oct. 29.