A local woman has filed a complaint with the state alleging the school district violated election law by using persuasive, rather than explanatory, language in describing a bond measure to build new schools.
District 21 Superintendent Candy Armstrong said, “We do not believe that we have violated Oregon election law, but we will fully cooperate with the investigation.”
The complaint, which reportedly included numerous attachments, was sent to the elections division of the Oregon Secretary of State’s office Monday, Oct. 22, by Cassie Ware of The Dalles.
A letter to the community announcing the complaint was signed by Ware, Libby Robinson and Danielle Parker. The letter was sent to the Chronicle but the complaint itself was not.
The Chronicle got a copy of the complaint from the elections division.
Steve Trout, director of elections for the state, described how his office decides whether to investigate a complaint. “The analysis is if we assume everything in the complaint is true could there be a violation of the statute. If yes, we investigate, if no we close the complaint.”
He added, “Nothing should be read into the fact that we have opened an investigation, because we have only heard one side of the story. By opening the investigation we are saying we need to give the party that is the target of the complaint the opportunity to tell their story and respond to the allegations.”
He said the state processes hundreds of complaints each year.
In her letter, Ware alleged the district has “engaged in using public funds to print and distribute unbalanced and persuasive materials, ads, websites, signage, and other types of media.”
She said they’ve been posted on district property and social media and are improperly promoting the bond instead of just providing neutral information.
She also said district verbiage in “some places, states in a definitive manner what the bond rate will be.”
In their community letter, the three women said they filed the complaint with the elections division’s “guidance.”
Trout said, “The ‘guidance’ we provided was a description of ORS 260.432 (the relevant statute) and instructions on how to file a complaint.”
The relevant statute bars asking public employees to promote or oppose a measure, and bars public employees from campaigning during work hours.
The district on the Nov. 6 ballot is seeking authority to issue a series of bonds to replace the high school and three elementaries and to make upgrades to schools until they are replaced. It seeks to issue five bonds over 20 years, totaling $235 million. They would be paid off in 50 years, and the district has pledged to keep the tax rate at approximately $2.99 per $1,000 assessed valuation.
Ware’s letter alleges the bond rate “is different for residents of the former D12 school district than it is for residents of the former D9 school district. The rate for the D12 area will be lower for some time, until a previous school bond for the D12 area is paid off. In spite of this, the school district Facebook page has been used to state definitively that the rate will be the same for all voters.”
Trudy Lupkes, a member of a political action committee (PAC) supporting the bond, said, “all properties within the boundaries of District 21 will be treated the same. All will be assessed an estimated $1.34 per thousand for the first tax year of the bond measure, which starts on July 1, 2019. And all will be assessed an estimated $2.99 per thousand for the remaining years.”
While residents in the former D12 finish paying off the middle school bond (which will expire in June 2020) at a cost of about $1.65 per $1,000, the entire district, including former D12 and former D9, would pay the same temporarily smaller rate of about $1.34 per $1,000 for the new bond authority.
That would keep the combined tax rate (of the old middle school bond and the new bond authority) for former D12 residents at approximately $2.99 per $1,000, as pledged by the district.
Once the middle school is paid off, the rate for the new bond authority would become $2.99 dis-trictwide.
Ware said verbiage on the district’s website, which includes a calculator to estimate the tax, says “this will be” your new rate, which she says is “false” language because it is not presented as an estimate.
She also said the calculator tells former D12 residents that the increase in their tax rate, of about $1.34, “will be the amount of the new rate.” She said, “In reality, that number represents the difference between the current bond rate already being paid and the possible new bond rate... There is no language to explain or clarify any of this. This leaves false information displayed to the voter.”
She said “unbalanced and persuasive” materials were given to adults and students at district events, including parent-teacher conferences, and were handed out by both citizens and district employees.
She said it gave the impression district staff were operating in their official capacity “while handing out persuasive materials.”
Lupkes said, “The ‘Vote Yes’ postcards handed out at school open house nights were produced by the PAC and very clearly state that they were ‘Paid for by Strong Community Schools (the PAC).’”
Lupkes said in her opinion district material was neutral and factual. “Nowhere do they say ‘Vote Yes on Bond Measure 33-98’ or ‘We want your support for this Bond Measure.’”
But the PAC was expressly created to advocate for the bond and is free to do so.
“The people handing them out were a mixture of PAC members and D21 teachers. They were outside the buildings, in the evening and volunteering on their own time,” Lupkes said.
State law allows public employees to advocate a political position, write letters to the editor and participate in lawful political activity when off duty.
Ware said district employees have signed letters of support, while listing their district titles. She said it was unclear if they signed while they were in their official capacity.
Lupkes said material Ware herself cited, from the Oregon School Boards Association, stated school employees can use their job title when endorsing a measure outside work, but tells them to “be cautious about giving the appearance of acting in your official capacity.”
Ware wrote, “While it has not been possible for us to confirm names, I believe this action and the board chair’s later defense of this action speaks to the tone of the school’s efforts to sway voters rather than inform.”
Board Chair Kathy Ursprung declined to comment.
In their community letter, Ware, Robinson and Parker said the state offers to review materials to ensure they don’t violate law, but that the district did not avail itself of that option.
District officials declined to speak to that.
PAC member Kurt Conger said PAC activities “have been entirely voluntary, people committing their own personal time, so there’s not misuse of public funds.”
Editor’s note: This story previously published at www.thedalleschronicle.com, has been updated with comments from Trudy Lupkes from the Strong Community Schools Political Action Committee.