School districts push the boundaries on influencing voters in tax elections

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Former Lovejoy school district Superintendent Ted Moore illicitly used over $5,000 in taxpayer money to promote a 2016 property tax increase, including, according to the Texas Ethics Commission, material containing potentially misleading claims.

Moore was making $275,000 a year when he abruptly resigned in February (for reasons apparently unrelated to the ethics flap) after 14 years at Lovejoy, in Collin County north of Dallas.

But when the ethics commission assessed a fine of $1,500 against him – well, no one wants to talk about whether he paid it or local taxpayers did.

Regardless, the amount paid doesn’t directly benefit local taxpayers who were affected by Moore’s actions. The money instead goes to the state’s general revenue fund.

It’s just one example of a system in Texas in which local taxpayers, not erring officials, end up all too often paying the freight for the officials’ misconduct.

When 2017 Richardson school board candidate Lynn Davenport was fined $250 by the ethics commission for failing to include the addresses of some contributors on her campaign finance report, she had to pay the fine herself; she didn’t win the election.

“As an employee at the time, they generally protect them,” said Davenport.

Neither current Lovejoy Superintendent Michael Goddard nor school board president Chad Collins responded to emails trying to find out who will pay the fine.

Every election season, Texas school districts push the envelope of what is legal in pitching tax increases to voters.

Anytime a school board votes to raise tax rates by more than four cents per $100 property valuation, that decision, by law, must be approved directly by voters in what is called a tax ratification election.

Also by state law, school boards, like city councils and other decision-making bodies, are prohibited from using tax dollars to influence the outcome of those elections.

It’s not a rare situation, and school trustees get plenty of information on proper procedures. The Texas School Public Relations Association includes a seminar on tax rate elections during its annual conference.  The ethics commission posts a primer on what is and is not advocacy on its website. The Texas Association of School Boards also posts information for its members on how and how not to inform constituents about a tax election.

Districts typically skirt the edge of the rules by spending thousands of dollars on brochures, radio and print ads that are supposed to inform rather than advocate.  They spend extra staff money on evening meetings with taxpayers that are supposed to be neutral but in fact can turn into pitch sessions at which parents are told of grave consequences  — including a lack of campus security — if a tax measure doesn’t pass.

In some places, local economic development groups take on the task of pushing school bond packages and elections, with funding that often includes public money.

In the Fort Bend school district in 2014, directors of the local economic council voted to support a school bond measure “and to dedicate staff time and resources to advocate for passage of the bond,” according to a resolution approved by the directors.

A Texas Monitor review of records found that since 2015 the Texas Ethics Commission has fined 12 individuals a total of $8,175 for using public money to influence various kinds of local elections. The Lovejoy case was the only one during that period to involve a school district election and also produced the biggest fine.

Last month in Midland, a $569 million bond school proposal appeared to have lost by a mere 25 votes. But in a recount called for by district officials, that outcome changed to an 11-vote win.

Parents on the “no” side of the vote accused the district of calling mandatory meetings for teachers in which they were given a “pro bond” presentation.

“They are using school time as well as resources to sell this bond,” Kristen Yadon told The Texas Monitor as the election neared. She alleged that district officials had also engaged in various activities that bordered on advocacy, but never produced any evidence of that conduct.

Even if district officials are found to have crossed that ethical line, the only consequence is an easily payable fine, said Sarah Hale, one of the Midland people opposed to the proposal.

“They don’t care once it passes,” she said.

In Lovejoy, the state compiled an 18-page report on how Moore sold taxpayers on approving the tax hike.

He spent $4,325 in school money to produce one video that stressed the need for passage of the bond proposal, and more school money on posting a second, similar video, according to the TEC report.

One of the videos “uses animation and visuals and crosses the line from a description of the purposes of the measure to advocacy by comparing the cost of the tax increase to that of a takeout pizza,” the TEC investigation found.  “There’s no reason to divide the yearly cost of the tax increase by 52 weeks and compare it to a minor indulgence except to minimize the cost to taxpayers … . The clear implication is that the LISD administrators that produced this video want the viewer to vote for the [tax ratification].”

The second video included a slide titled “Protecting the Lovejoy Way,” which the commission found was “a call to action in support of the [ratification].”

Moore, in his argument to the commission, contended that he received legal counsel before posting the videos and was told that the communications were not political advertising.

But the commission said the advice was not a formal legal opinion and was therefore not a valid defense.

Ed Shack, an Austin attorney who in 1991 helped develop the rules and procedures for the Texas Ethics Commission, said that “there was never a consideration” of returning to local taxpayers any funds found to have been spent illicitly.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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