News Story

Advocacy Alleged In School District Bond Promotion

Traverse City school district officials say they did not tell people how to vote

A Traverse City tea party activist said he has filed a complaint with the Michigan Bureau of Elections claiming the Traverse City Area Public Schools broke state law by telling voters in a brochure to approve an infrastructure improvement bond that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The brochure read: "Traverse City Area Public Schools is asking voters to support the continuation of TCAPS' long-term capital infrastructure improvement plan by authorizing a bond proposal on November 6, 2012."

The full-color brochure says the money will help preserve bus services, upgrade buildings and increase access to technology for students, among other things.

"The school district has always gone right up to the line without crossing it, but this time stepped over it in its effort to pass this bond request," said Traverse City tea party activist Jason Gillman. "By offering more than information, and asking for support through an authorization, it is clearly a request for a 'yes' vote, which violates the statute."

The district said the brochure cost $20,000 to mail to potential voters.

The state's campaign finance law states that public bodies may not make statements of "express advocacy" using public resources.

Traverse City Superintendent Stephen Cousins said the district consulted with its lawyers about the legality of the brochure.

"In our opinion, the statement is factual in nature in that the board of education is asking voters to continue to support the long-range strategic plan for capital improvements on a district-wide basis," Cousins said in an email. "The school district did not intend to tell registered voters how to vote nor did the school district expressly advocate a 'yes' vote. TCAPS strongly believes that it has a fiduciary duty to explain to the registered voters why the bond proposition is being placed before the voters, which must necessitate reference in the brochure to the board of education's goals and rationale for moving forward with the long-term strategic plan for capital improvements."

Cousins said the district acknowledged the brochure could have been misinterpreted by the resident as advocating a "yes" vote. He said the district isn't mailing that brochure out again, but said that wasn't an admission it violated the law. Cousins said the district's new statement on the issue will read: "Traverse City Area Public Schools is seeking authorization from its voters on November 6, 2012, to issue bonds for the continuation of TCAPS long-term infrastructure improvement plan."

Secretary of State Spokesman Fred Woodhams said that the office had received the complaint as of Friday. Woodhams said the Secretary of State's office does not comment on allegations until they have an opportunity to review it.

For the brochure, click here and see page 2.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.