An elections watchdog group claims that Minnesota school districts are using taxpayer funds to promote levy referendum campaigns while failing to file financial reports. On Friday, the group took its case against the state’s largest school district to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
In a lawsuit that a judge dismissed earlier this year, ruling it had not been filed in time, the Minnesota Voters Alliance claims that the Anoka-Hennepin District failed to report expenditures related to a 2011 referendum brochure. The brochure informed voters of the consequences of approving or rejecting three levy questions on the November 2011 ballot.
“What’s at stake is the nature of school district referendum elections,” Erick Kaardal, an attorney representing the Minnesota Voters Alliance, said after Friday’s arguments before the Appeals Court. “School districts are acting like politicians. They inform and educate while they persuade.”
The attorney representing Anoka-Hennepin says the district was not disseminating campaign literature when it explained the consequences of yes or no answers to each of three questions on the 2011 referendum ballot.
“No, this isn’t campaign literature,” attorney Jeanette Bazis said after the hearing. “This is a brochure to educate the public … an obligation the district takes seriously.”
In her statement to the Court of Appeals, Bazis noted that the district did not want a repeat of January 2002 — when residents complained at a meeting that they had not been well-informed about 2001 levy questions.
Bazis said that in 2011, the district made concerted efforts to inform voters — through its website, providing an online tax calculator and distributing an official notice of the special election — detailing the tax effects of each levy question.
The Voters Alliance and member Donald Huizenga filed a complaint on Nov. 2, 2012, against Anoka-Hennepin with the Office of Administrative Hearings. The suit was dismissed this past April after Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman ruled that the Voters Alliance and Huizenga, who says he’s monitored school referendums for 12 years, failed to meet a one-year statute of limitations.
The judge noted that the school district posted its brochure online on Oct. 27, 2011, the same day it circulated 6,000 copies of a printed version to staff for circulation to district employees and others. Four days later, on Oct. 31, the district mailed 82,135 copies to school district residents. A complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings alleging that the district violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act was not filed until more than a year later.
Kaardal said that the alliance had thought it filed its claim in time, thinking the court was paying attention to the date that referendum literature was received, not sent. But Judge Lipman noted that the brochure was posted Oct. 27 on a Web page that attracted more than 4 million visits in October of 2011.
“It took time to research all this material,” Huizenga said of the length of time before the alliance filed its complaint.
The alliance also claimed that Anoka-Hennepin had falsely stated in its 2011 brochure that state funding had increased an average of 1 percent per year in the previous 10 years. According to the Minnesota Department of Education and the House of Representatives, the school district was correct, Bazis said. The alliance no longer is pursuing that part of its challenge against Anoka-Hennepin.
“Did the district, in this brochure, act to promote the ballot question?” Bazis asked after the hearing. “Our attorney general has said a school district should provide voters with facts and information, so they’re not left misinformed. Case law says [a school district is] allowed to explain what happens if you vote no or if you vote yes. We believe that that is what the school district did.”
Kaardal says the brochure was a blatant promotion.
“It’s part of having an attractive brochure,” Kaardal said. “They want you to read it, to get a reaction. And, in the end, they want you to vote yes.”
The Court of Appeals has 90 days to make its ruling. Attorneys for both sides were often diverted Friday from their prepared statements to answer questions from the panel of three judges.