School District Used Second-Graders to Urge Tax Vote

West Bloomfield district employee feeds lines to children

In 2014, the West Bloomfield School District was pressing to have two operating millages renewed. As part of the campaign, the district gave a writing assignment to 700 children in grades two through five: Write letters encouraging residents to vote, which the district would use in a pre-election mailing.

According to the school district, the fifth-graders were told to write longer letters encouraging a vote, and warned to avoid the terms “vote for” or “vote against” in their text. Doing so would be considered “express advocacy,” which at the time was the only legal restriction on taxpayer-funded electioneering by public schools and local governments.

The district even provided the fifth-graders with an employee, a media specialist, who drafted suggested language, and who was present while the children wrote their letters. The process took 30 minutes for each fifth-grade class and generated 175 letters. The letters were sent about a week before the Feb. 25 vote, attached to a form styled as an invitation to an upcoming school event — and a reminder from the district to vote.

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Not all the kids got that legal point about avoiding express advocacy in their texts. At least one letter went out that included the forbidden “vote for” language. It read, “Please remember to vote on February 25th for the school millage renewal.”

This caused one resident to file a complaint with the Secretary of State. What followed illustrates why critics believe the previous law was ineffective at limiting taxpayer-funded electioneering.

A new law passed late last year now prohibits schools and local governments from referencing an upcoming bond or millage election in any taxpayer-funded communication within 60 days of the vote. It is the subject of intense legislative lobbying by government entities and officials who want the new law repealed.

An investigation by the Secretary of State, begun before the new law was enacted, found there was reason to believe the West Bloomfield School District had committed a violation, a finding which required the district to respond. In one response, West Bloomfield Superintendent Gerald Hill laid out the details described above.

Bill Mull, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, also responded. He reported that no two letters written by the children were the same, and the district’s sample letter did not include the “vote for” language. However, a copy of that sample letter was not included in the district’s response to the state. The district also reported that it did not keep copies of the children’s letters.

Other details in the school officials’ responses were unclear or contradictory. Mull said only fifth-graders wrote the long-form letters used in the mailing. His response included a letter written by an “underclassmen” (a second-, third- or fourth-grader) that was 10 words long, with a few of the handwritten words indecipherable. However, the student who wrote the longer letter that triggered the complaint identified himself as a fourth-grader.

The school district admitted no wrongdoing in the incident and no violation of state election law. It claimed the letter containing the illegal express-advocacy words was merely an oversight.

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said that by law, the state must first seek an informal resolution to such complaints. If this is not possible, the agency may then refer the matter for criminal prosecution or conduct an administrative hearing to seek a civil fine.

Although the district admitted no wrongdoing, it promised to not use public resources in the future to advance a political campaign.

The case was then considered resolved. The renewal millages passed.

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