News Story

School District May Have Crossed Legal Line in Tax Request

Pinckney Superintendent's email on millage renewal raises questions

An email blast sent Nov. 3 from the superintendent in Pinckney Community Schools using school mailing lists stated the district was “asking voters to renew” a multi-million millage raises questions whether the district crossed the line and violated state campaign finance law.

The email, sent by superintendent Rick Todd to parents, employees and school board members, states: “For Pinckney Community Schools, we are asking voters to renew a 6-year Non-Homestead Millage of 18 Mils.” The six-year millage passed last night and will raise about $3.7 million a year for the school district, which is located in Livingston County.

Bob LaBrant, who served as general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and is an expert on election laws, said it sounded like the email was “express advocacy,” something not allowed under state campaign finance law.

“Renew is like, ‘Vote yes,’ isn’t it?” LaBrant said. “The Secretary of State may not view it the same way.”

Eric Doster, general counsel for the state Republican Party, said the email was a close call “since this could be interpreted as restating the question.”

Superintendent Todd did not respond to requests for comment.

Paul Samways ran as a write-in candidate for the Pinckney School Board. He thought the advocacy crossed the line.

"I appreciate the fact that Pinckney Schools needs that money, but we should do it the right way," said Samways, who lost his race last night. "And if you look at the final results, it was unnecessary."

The Secretary of State has said 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.”

Districts, however, have found ways to encourage voters to vote “yes” and avoid using “words of express advocacy” in the past.

For example, in 2006 the Galesburg-August School District stated in a newsletter that “voters can vote yes for one, two or three (bond) proposals.” The state ruled that was a statement of fact and not a violation of the law.

In 2012, Traverse City Area Public Schools was found guilty of expressed advocacy for a bond after Michigan Capitol Confidential reported on a brochure sent out by the district that said, "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."

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.