News Story

Campaign Season, And More Taxpayer-Funded Tax-Hike Electioneering

This time it’s Schoolcraft College advocating with public resources

A Michigan community college seeking a property tax hike on the Nov. 6 ballot faces charges that college staffers illegally used public resources for political purposes by politicking for the measure during work hours and using taxpayer-funded equipment to do so.

Attorney Karen Woodside filed the complaint against Schoolcraft College with the Michigan Secretary of State. Woodside alleges that employees of the Wayne County community college broke the law by using college computers to send mass emails to voters urging support for the tax hike.

The proposal would raise the property tax levied by the college from 1.7766 mills to 2.27 mills, which would cost about $50 more each year for the owner of a home with a $200,000 market value. The college has said that without the increase it will look elsewhere for more money, which could mean higher student tuition and fees, or it could reduce current services it provides to students.

State law prohibits public bodies from using public resources for political purposes, and it bars public employees from engaging in political activity during working hours. If found responsible, the college could face fines of up to $20,000, and the individuals involved could be subject to misdemeanor penalties of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Referring to the state statute that contains these prohibitions Woodside said, “There should be no communications going out with MCL 169.257(3) stating that a public body must refrain from mass communications. It is outrageous.”

The college denies that it violated the law.

The complaint included emails sent from college employees to the entire staff using the college email system. Among these were comments from College President Conway Jeffress to faculty:

“We desperately need your support for this ballot proposal,” one email signed by Jeffress said, which included his title as president of the college.

Another email appears to have been sent to staff and students from the work email of Todd Stowell, the college’s director of student activities. It states, “Schoolcraft College is going for a ballot initiative in November 2018 for Headlee override to provide quality education to its students without raising tuition. And we need your support for a successful Headlee override.” The email is electronically signed by Harshang Patel.

Patel’s LinkedIn profile lists him as a Schoolcraft student, and in 2017, he was a staff writer for the college’s student newspaper, the Schoolcraft Connection. Stowell is listed as the advertising adviser for the newspaper.

Gerald Champagne is a professor at Schoolcraft College and on his work email he sent a group message to other employees imploring them to get others to vote “Yes” on the ballot proposal.

Champagne’s email said:

Just more evidence of what each of us can do for the ballot proposal. I received the below text from someone that received the email earlier this morning and was inspired to make their own push via Facebook.

The couple of minutes I spent this morning on the email from home has already paid off in so many ways.

Let's keep going!!!

Jerry Champagne

This is what i posted on my Facebook account...

"The last thing any of us want to see is another 'pitch' for your vote Nov 6th, however, I would like to appeal to some of my Schoolcraft School Servicing Districts (Canton, Plymouth, Northville, Livonia) to please consider voting 'Yes' for the Ballot Proposal. Schoolcraft has so many Great Programs for all ages and if the proposal doesn't pass, some programs may go away, tuition goes up and enrollment goes down.

"On a Two Hundred Thousand Dollar home Value, we are talking about $50. annually, ($1.93 every two weeks) No one wants to see their taxes go up, but this is a tax where you can actually see where it goes.! An Investment in our Kids, Community and future.!"

While the state law against using public resources for politics is lightly enforced in this area, the one infraction that can draw attention from the Secretary of State Elections Bureau is committing “express advocacy,” or sending taxpayer-funded messages urging a “yes” or “no” vote on a measure.

Another email sent to faculty and staff from Frank Ruggirello Jr., the college’s executive director of marketing and advancement, said that employees could pick up a campaign button for the proposal if they wanted to help the college maintain high standards.

“Ethics are of paramount importance in every organization and entity,” Woodside said to Michigan Capitol Confidential. “This undermines the integrity of the school, the administration and least of all this election.”

Kim Madeleine, a spokesperson for Schoolcraft College, said that the institution has not violated any laws.

“The college is allowed to provide facts and information regarding the ballot proposal to employees, students and community members without advocating for support of the proposal,” Madeleine said. “Therefore, the college’s communications regarding this ballot proposal has been factual only.”

Fred Woodhams, a spokesperson for the Michigan Secretary of State, said the office has not decided whether to investigate the complaint.

“Bureau of Elections staff will review the complaint and decide whether to dismiss it or go forward with an investigation within five business days,” Woodham said. “We don’t typically comment further until the complaint is dismissed or resolved.”

Eric Doster, an attorney who has worked with the state GOP in the past and is an elections law expert, called the emails “blatant express advocacy.”

“As long as this Legislature tolerates this monkey business, it will continue,” Doster said.

In response to extensive and ongoing complaints about government entities using public resources to electioneer in favor of tax hikes, in 2015, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting public bodies from sending residents any communications about a ballot question within 60 days of the vote. Schools and local governments sued, and the law was eventually set aside by a federal judge, with the agreement of the Michigan Secretary of State.