Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Promoting referenda

East Range school districts may run afoul of the law in rush to pass school bond

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Voters in the Virginia, Eveleth, and Gilbert areas are set to vote this coming Tuesday on a $178.5 million school bond referendum designed, in part, to build a massive new, merged high school building serving both school districts.

We generally don’t cover these school districts and we’re not about to weigh in on the merits of the proposal. That’s for the voters of those two school districts to decide.

Yet many residents in our region do have a stake in what happens on Tuesday, because of the way in which this school bond measure has been marketed to East Range voters. And we use the word “marketed” deliberately, because the two school districts involved in this effort appear to have used taxpayer dollars for a promotional campaign clearly designed to influence voters ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

That campaign has included huge ads in the local newspapers, and large, glossy, professionally-designed, multi-page brochures apparently mailed to every postal customer in Virginia. Such campaigns cost many thousands of dollars. And the ads and brochures indicate that they were paid for by the school districts.

Just four years ago, residents of our area completed five years of litigation seeking accountability for a similar abuse of tax dollars by the St. Louis County School District. As a result, the Supreme Court in Minnesota concluded that school districts are subject to campaign finance reporting requirements if they use public funds in an effort to influence a ballot measure. We contacted both the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts for copies of those districts’ campaign reports. The Virginia School District, on its website, posts such reports for various individuals and privately-funded groups seeking to promote passage of Tuesday’s referendum, but have posted nothing related to the school district’s own spending, which probably dwarfs that of the traditional Vote Yes committees.

To be clear, whether the school districts disclose their spending in a campaign finance report isn’t the most important issue at stake here. The far more important question is whether school districts should be spending tax dollars, at all, on one-sided campaigns to win passage of ballot measures. Minnesota Attorney Generals have consistently determined that the answer is no. Minn. Stat. 8.07 requires school districts to follow a formal opinion filed by an attorney general unless a court rules to the contrary. So far, in Minnesota, no court has done so.

The law does allow school districts to inform voters of the specifics of a bond measure or excess levy, including what the funds will be used for and how much it will cost taxpayers. And, for decades, school districts complied, consistently providing voters with a “just the facts, ma’am,” presentation of the issues.

Yet as consultants and engineering firms began to get more involved in advocating for capital projects— which entail big paydays for all involved— they have too often led school districts to overstep their spending authority. That puts taxpayers at an enormous disadvantage, since citizens are rarely organized enough, nor have sufficient resources, to effectively challenge a well-financed school district campaign. It’s because of that mismatch that school districts have a profound obligation to ensure that the information they provide to residents is purely factual and balanced. From all appearances, the two school districts in this case have not met that responsibility.

The push to require school districts to file campaign finance reports was not just about transparency— it was designed to prompt school districts to, essentially, confess their own sins. By filing the report, a school district is acknowledging spending tax dollars on ballot measure promotion, which leaves them clearly exposed for a taxpayer-standing lawsuit on the broader question of whether such spending is even authorized in Minnesota.

Case law from around the country demonstrates that courts have consistently frowned on the use of tax dollars to fund one side of a political campaign.

The law, of course, only matters when the public is willing to speak up. Will voters on the East Range take a stand, like those of us “north of the divide” did in the case of the St. Louis County Schools?

Time will tell.

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