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Promo or info: Local watchdog asks MN court to draw line on school referenda

By   /   October 23, 2013  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

ST. PAUL — A citizen watchdog group hopes a challenge to a 2011 referendum will redefine how far school boards can go in supporting levies posed to voters through ballot referenda.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals is hearing arguments on the case this week.

“This could impact every school district in Minnesota,” said Andy Cilek, executive director of the group, Minnesota Voters Alliance. “We think the court’s going to have to draw a line between what’s informational and what’s promotional. And if the court doesn’t, then all these other people trying to fight referendums in Minnesota have nowhere to go. There’s no guidelines.”

It’s the first high-stakes challenge under a 2012 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that committees spending more than $750 to promote a ballot initiative must follow state campaign finance reporting rules. That includes school districts.

The case involves a complaint by the Minnesota Voters Alliance over a 2011 campaign by Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, in which residents approved two of three levy questions raising $500 million over 10 years.

The controversy largely focuses on the contents and timing of a district-produced “informational” Stable Schools brochure sent to 83,000 residents outlining the potential impact of the proposed levies.

“The brochure encouraged residents to vote, but did not urge voters to vote ‘yes’ or otherwise support the levy referenda,” according to court papers filed by the school district.

The flier presented various scenarios for each proposed levy: If Question 1 passes? Count on reasonable class sizes, specialist teachers, academic support programs, rigorous courses, full array of athletics, speech, debate and marching band, according to the four-page pamphlet.

If Question 1 does not pass? Get ready for high school class sizes in the 50s, 550 fewer teachers, 137 fewer principals, administrators and custodians, closing five schools, significant reduction of academic support programs and elimination of many high school athletics and/or dramatic increase in fees.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance complaint alleges A-H officials crossed the legal line from informational to promotional campaign material “intended to influence voting on the ballot question during an election.”

MVA also alleges the mailer — it holds this disclaimer:  “This brochure is not circulated on behalf of any candidate or ballot question” — contained factual inaccuracies on the level of state financial support for districts.

A-H photo

HIGH STAKES: School district says efforts did not cross the legal line from informational to promotional in 2011 levy campaign now in court.

“Most people expect it to be neutral, when actually it’s not,” said Don Huizenga, a taxpayer in the A-H school district and party to the lawsuit. “And they’re paying for it with dollars that come out of the general fund. There’s no real accountability for it. Yet I don’t think it’s ever really been challenged to any extent.”

MVA claims the school district was required to file a state campaign finance report for groups that spend more than $750 for advocacy electoral efforts.  Anoka-Hennepin spent about $60,000 creating and disseminating the brochure, a required legal notice, “informational” videos and numerous fliers, including one addressing rumors and another translated into four languages.

A-H officials dismiss and flatly deny all of the citizen group’s allegations. “The governing statute did not require the District to report the printing and mailing expenses because the brochure was informational, not promotional,” said Mary Olson, A-H director of communications and public relations, in an email.

While acknowledging A-H had “an interest in the passage of the ballot questions,” court documents state “in order for voters to make informed decisions and give school districts clear direction, a school district must tell voters about the consequences of approving or rejecting a levy question on taxes, school services, and programs.”

“The District presents a realistic, factual picture of the consequences of voting ‘no’ on one of the 2011 Levy Questions. The factual consequences of voting ‘yes’ on that question are also presented in the Stable Schools brochure. The brochure does not urge the reader to vote ‘yes’.”

But it may be too late.

The school district claims the complaint was filed a few days after the one-year statute of limitations on such cases, though MVA disputes it. Despite finding merit in some of the citizen group’s claims, an administrative law judge dismissed the complaint earlier this year on statute of limitations grounds, triggering an appeal and the scheduled Oct. 25 hearing.

“We feel our case is very strong for holding the school board accountable and requiring them to publicly disclose their self-serving expenditures,” said Cilek in a news release. “Such a decision would mark the end of school boards’ successful stonewalling of all other attempts to increase their transparency.”

Contact Tom Steward at tsteward@watchdog.org

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Tom Steward