A Catch-22 ruling for state’s schools
Campaign finance decision creates risks in referendum drives.
Star Tribune Editorial, August 14, 2012 – A recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision is likely to lead to a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t dilemma for the state’s school districts.
Last week, the court said that state campaign finance rules do indeed apply to school districts. So if school officials use public resources to ask taxpayers for more money, they must register and report that activity like any other political committee.
Even before the ruling, school district leaders already understand that they could not campaign for a referendum, based on a decades-old attorney general’s ruling. They know they are limited to providing referendum information to the public. Filing a campaign finance report, of course, would suggest they’ve crossed the line from offering facts and figures to promoting a particular vote.
The question came before justices because some “Vote No” citizens challenged St. Louis County schools over a ballot initiative. An administrative law judge rejected their claim and said campaign finance rules did not apply to school districts. But the group appealed to the high court.
Supreme Court justices found that school districts may fall within the reporting requirements of the law as “public corporations.” Still, the court did not rule on whether the district violated reporting laws. That will be left for a panel of administrative law judges to decide.
It’s certainly no secret that superintendents and a majority of their school board members favor passage of school referendums. They are, after all, the officials who make the request for additional tax dollars. Superintendents and their staffs manage district budgets and make referendum recommendations to school boards. When a school board votes to place a request on the ballot, the vote says it supports passage of the referendum.
Once they decide to make the request, it is their duty to explain why the funds are needed, how they will be used and how the tax hike will affect property taxpayers. That’s why most districts seeking additional tax dollars post information on their websites.
However, for years, school district leaders have understood that they may not actively campaign for a ballot question with school resources. Simply put, they must not cross the line that separates providing information to voters from telling them how to vote.
Those promotional functions are typically left to a separate committee, often run by volunteer parents, that produces flyers, lawn signs and other campaign materials. “Vote Yes” committees raise their own funds and do not use school district resources.
Erick Kaardal, the attorney who brought the St. Louis County case on behalf of citizens who believed their schools crossed the line, told the Star Tribune that the Supreme Court ruling would increase transparency.
We generally favor more transparency at all levels of government, but we fear that the ruling will embolden “Vote No” groups to mount costly legal challenges to legitimate information efforts by school districts.
If that’s not the case — and if the court’s decision simply stands as a strong reminder to schools officials that they shouldn’t use public funds for referendum campaigns — Minnesota will have been well-served by its high court.