Some Franklin Township parents feel the school district has an unfair advantage in getting its message out in support of a Nov. 3 referendum because it uses school resources to do so.I thought our laws were clear that government employees aren't supposed to engage in political activities on the government's dime or at the government's expense. The Marion Co. Election Board is meeting at 10:00 a.m. this morning. I may just have to check in with our election board on this question.
Information about the referendum is included in school fliers sent to homes through the mail and with students.
Heather Simpson, who has both elementary and high school students in the district, doesn't believe school resources should be used to push the district's agenda, 6News' Rick Hightower reported.
"I think if they're going to use school resources and school paper and send things through the mail on the school's dime, then you should let the people who are saying, 'No, we don't want this,' to have the same sort of access," Simpson said.
Chris MacNaughton, an employee of the school district, told 6News that he created a Web site in support of the referendum on a school system computer server, contending that the approach was neither illegal nor unethical.
"The money has come from the fundraising we've done, which is not much. We do host it on the school machine, but the costs for that, they'll tell you it's negligible," MacNaughton said.
MacNaughton added that he donated all the time that he used to work on the Web site, but the site is not the only bone of contention for some parents because of the use of district mailings and newsletters that also have information about the referendum.
Superintendent Walter Bourke wasn't available for comment for this story, but Election Board representative Angela Nussmeyer said the district's handling of the referendum is in a gray area, and that unless citizens file specific complaints with the board, it's likely nothing would be done even if there were violations.
"They are a property tax levy referendum. That's the question that's on the ballot, so there are no ... official rules of conduct outlined specifically in statute," Nussmeyer said. "Now that's not to say there aren't other parts of state law they have violated."
Franklin Township, like many districts, contends that the effects of property tax reform are leaving them with not enough money to properly fulfill their mission. The district believes the referendum is a way to ensure a quality education.
Some residents disagree, and have begun a grassroots campaign against the referendum.
"They're hearing that their kids are going to lose quality education. They can't take away quality education," said Jen Gearries, who put homemade "vote no" signs in her yard, along with anti-referendum fliers in a plastic container.
The referendum would raise yearly taxes on a $150,000 home by about $150, Hightower reported.
Those against the referendum worry that their message isn't getting out, and feel that the district's usage of its resources gives it an unfair advantage.
"I don't think school servers should be used to host political action committee Web sites," Simpson said.
Residents who have questions or concerns about the referendum can contact the Marion County Election Board, which holds its next meeting on Oct. 21.
UPDATE: The counsel to the Marion Co. Election Board, Scott Chinn, addressed the complaints about use of taxpayer funds and resources to promote the referendum questions on the ballot at this morning's meeting. He cited the following statute as applying to the activities under scrutiny:
Restriction on promotion of position on referendum
Sec. 10.1. (a) This section applies only to a political subdivision that, after June 30, 2008, adopts an ordinance or a resolution making a preliminary determination to issue bonds or enter into a lease subject to sections 3.5 and 3.6 of this chapter.
(b) During the period beginning with the adoption of the ordinance or resolution and continuing through the day on which a local public question is submitted to the voters of the political subdivision under section 3.6 of this chapter, the political subdivision seeking to issue bonds or enter into a lease for the proposed controlled project may not promote a position on the local public question by doing any of the
(1) Allowing facilities or equipment, including mail and messaging systems, owned by the political subdivision to be used for public relations purposes to promote a position on the local public question, unless equal access to the facilities or equipment is given to persons with a position opposite to that of the political subdivision.
(2) Making an expenditure of money from a fund controlled by the political subdivision to promote a position on the local public question. This subdivision does not prohibit a political subdivision from making an expenditure of money to an attorney, an architect, a registered professional engineer, a construction manager, or a financial adviser for professional services provided with respect to a controlled project.
(3) Using an employee to promote a position on the local public question during the employee's normal working hours or paid overtime, or otherwise compelling an employee to promote a position on the local public question at any time.
(4) In the case of a school corporation, promoting a position on a local public question
(A) using students to transport written materials to their residences or in any way directly involving students in a school organized promotion of a position;
(B) including a statement within another communication sent to the students' residences.However, this section does not prohibit an employee of the political subdivision from carrying out duties with respect to a local public question that are part of the normal and regular conduct of the employee's office or agency.
(c) The staff and employees of a school corporation may not personally identify a student as the child of a parent or guardian who supports or opposes a controlled project subject to a local public question held under section 3.6 of this chapter.
(d) A person or an organization that has a contract or arrangement (whether formal or informal) with a school corporation for the use of any of the school corporation's facilities may not spend any money to promote a position on a local public question. A person or an organization that violates this subsection commits a Class A infraction.
(e) An attorney, an architect, a registered professional engineer, a construction manager, or a financial adviser for professional services provided with respect to a controlled project may not spend any money to promote a position on a local public question. A person who violates this subsection:
(1) commits a Class A infraction;
(2) is barred from performing any services with respect to the controlled project.
(f) An elected or appointed public official of the political subdivision may personally advocate for or against a position on the local public question so long as it is not done by using public funds.
Take a close look at this statute. As Chinn pointed out at this morning's meeting, it only applies to public projects supported by bonds, which means some of the school questions on the ballot are not subject to it. The Wishard referendum, however, is clearly subject to this law. No official complaints have been filed with the Election Board and Chinn pointed out that it is a new law and there are no decisions interpreting it. As Hightower reportered on WRTV, the Clerk's office has been advising people that it's a gray area of the law. That may not be the case. If you see evidence of this law being violated, I would urge people to file a formal complaint with the Election Board.