State rules that favorable statements from schools about ballot proposals do not break election law by expressly advocating for 'yes' votes
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 2007, the Southgate Community School District mailed an informational flier to all absentee voters in advance of a school district bond election. The flier contained the following statements in reference to the bond:
“Securing a better future for Southgate students…”
“Let’s make our Southgate schools safer and better”
“To stay competitive in the global economy, we must provide our students access to the latest educational technology systems and updated computer workstations…”
“Security at school is a win-win for everyone.”
“Maintaining a safe, secure learning environment will enable school personnel to teach our Southgate students to the fullest of their ability.”
The Michigan Department of State ruled that none of the statements were in violation of the state’s campaign finance law, which states that public bodies may not make statements of “express advocacy” using public resources.
“A sensible reader may be left with the distinct impression that the informational flyer contains an unambiguous appeal for voters’ support,” the state wrote in its opinion. However, the ultimate ruling was that the letter of the law was followed: “… it does not contain words of express advocacy.”
The Department of State tells school districts that it is important for public bodies to remain neutral when presenting information on bonds and millages. However, the department has ruled that schools may “communicate with voters, so long as the communication does not contain such words as ‘vote for,’ ‘vote against,’ ‘support,’ ‘oppose,’ or other words of express advocacy.”
And school districts have shown they can promote a bond or millage while steering clear of the loaded terms.
Proposal 5 of 2006
Had it passed in 2006, the “Michigan Mandatory School Funding Initiative.” known as Proposal 5, would have increased funding for schools by $565 million, with about $386 million of that going to cover school districts’ pension costs.
In an effort to get it passed, the Macomb County School Board Association and the Macomb County Schools Superintendent Association used public funds to mail a pamphlet to absentee voters that claimed Proposal 5 “is part of a long-range plan to boost Michigan’s employment rate and economy.”
That caught the attention of Sterling Heights resident Gerald O’Neill, who filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of State, saying statement was untrue and in violation of the state’s campaign finance law. What proof was there, he wondered, that a tax increase with most of the money going to pay pension costs would lower unemployment and improve the state’s economy?
The Department of State disagreed, ruling that the pamphlet “simply presents factual information concerning education funding and the potential impact if the ballot question is adopted.”
Proposal 5 was eventually rejected by 62 percent of the voters.
In 2006, the Galesburg-Augusta School District mailed a district newsletter that said “voters can vote yes for one, two or three (bond) proposals.”
A violation by “expressing advocacy” for ‘yes’ votes only?
Not according to the state. According to the state’s ruling: “Although the article neglected to mention that readers may also vote ‘no’ on any of the ballot proposals, the Department regards the quoted sentence as a statement of fact.”
When the Berkley School District reported in a 2010 newsletter that the “total cost” for a bond was $167 million, some residents filed a complaint with the state. The residents said the school was misleading voters because the total cost would be $430 million once interest on the bonds was added. The district had failed to mention that.
The state disagreed. Its opinion reads: “The statute, however, does not require that the information disseminated by a public body be accurate or complete… only that it is factual.”