A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Michigan Capitol Confidential put in a Freedom of Information Act request to the Michigan Department of the State regarding campaign finance violation complaints against school districts over the last five years. The campaign finance law prohibits a public body from using public resources to promote passing a bond or millage.

In our third story on school districts and the campaign finance law, we take a look at how one district’s discussion of its bond led to numerous complaints from residents.

The Berkley School District put a multi-million dollar bond up for a vote in February of 2010. The bond was defeated by 69.45 percent of the voters. The Michigan Department of the State investigated about a dozen complaints filed by residents and ruled that there were no violations.

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Fliers explaining how to pass a bond for the Berkley Public Schools were stuffed into the backpacks of students by school administrators. There were allegations that the district wouldn’t allow anti-bond groups to pass out information at a public meeting, while pro-bond groups were permitted to at other meetings. And in one instance, a Berkley school employee denied a request to place a paid advertisement in a district newsletter because it advocated against the bond. The employee incorrectly stated that campaign finance laws wouldn’t allow advertising.

In 2010, about a dozen complaints were filed with the Michigan Department of State by residents complaining that the school district had violated the law by using public resources to promote the bond.

The state shot them all down.

The Secretary of State uses an “express advocacy” standard when ruling on potential violations. Bob LaBrant, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for political action, refers to it as “the magic words.”

It means that as long as a school district doesn’t say “vote yes” or “support this bond,” the Secretary of State will often not find a violation.

“The idea of school district neutrality in elections is easily circumvented by artfully designing what kind of message you want to send out,” LaBrant said.

Berkley resident Robert Williams said the work he put into investigating his half-dozen allegations was a waste of time.

“I basically feel like I wasted 30 hours of my time tracking down all the information,” Williams said this week. “I really feel like it was a waste of time now. They (the state) didn’t take it seriously. I don’t believe the rules are being enforced. They spend a lot of time and a lot of money setting up a process to get justice, but you don’t really get it.”

One complaint alleged that elementary school administrators sent home fliers in student backpacks that detailed a pro-bond committee’s strategy to pass the bond. The state found no violation because the fliers didn’t specifically state “vote yes” or “support the bond.” But the state did write that “the Department in no way condones the decision to use children to carry election-related messages home to their parents.”

Williams alleged that the district wouldn’t allow him to distribute anti-bond fliers at a public meeting, even though the district let pro-bond parents pass out their literature that same evening at other school events in other buildings.

The state rejected that claim because Williams didn’t provide evidence.

Williams was sent an e-mail from the Berkley Schools’ communications supervisor that rejected his anti-bond advertisement in a district newsletter. In the e-mail, the district employee cites the Campaign Finance Act prohibiting the school from using district resources to provide anything other than “factual” information.

However, the state said the campaign finance law does not restrict a school from accepting advertisements. “The district may exert editorial control of the newsletter it pays to create and disseminate,” the state ruled.

That newsletter contained a “fact of the week.” In one instance, the newsletter lamented the low parent turnout in school elections. The article reminded parents that only 17 percent of the people who voted in a recent failed bond were parents of the school children.

“Who will be making the decision for your children?” the story asked.

Residents complained that the  Berkley school district low-balled the true cost of the bond. The district stated the “total cost” for the bond was $167 million. Residents said the school’s figure didn’t include any of the interest payments, which would balloon the cost to $430 million.

The state ruled in favor of the school. The state wrote, “The statute, however, does not require that the information disseminated by a public body be accurate or complete… only that it is ‘factual.’ ”

The Association of Berkley Administrators listed their address as the same as the Berkley School District Administration offices, and donated $250 to the pro-bond “Say Yes to Kids” committee.

Pro-bond committees in other districts have used the school administration addresses in the past, according to the FOIA documents. For example, a pro-bond committee used the same address as the Hamtramck Public School’s administration building. The Michigan Department of the State found that the school violated the campaign finance law. Handwritten notes show the state investigator was convinced after the committee treasurer for the Hamtramck pro-bond side sent in his rebuttal to the allegation … and it was also in an official school district envelope.

But the state said it couldn’t rule on the Association of Berkley Administrators case because the complaint lacked enough evidence that the association was a public body and that the donation could be linked to the school district.

A Berkley public school employee used school resources to put together a list of parent contact information for use by the pro-bond committee. The state didn’t deny that the official used resources to create the list of parents’ phone numbers, but noted that the superintendent provided a sworn statement that the school employee acted without official authorization from the superintendent.

Because the complaint was against the superintendent, rather than the allegedly rogue subordinate, the state dismissed the claim.

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See also:

State rules that favorable statements from schools about ballot proposals do not break election law by expressly advocating for 'yes' votes

Schools That Break State Election Laws Face Just "Speeding Ticket" Fines

Supreme Court Okays Using Public Schools for Political Fundraising

School Advocacy in Bond Elections Questioned

School District Defends Its Neutrality in State House Race

Kent ISD Resources Used to Promote a 'Reception' for Democrat Congressional Candidate

School District Resources Used for Candidate Campaign Announcement 

Using Your Money to Get Your Money

Using Taxes To Lobby for Taxes

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