If a school district spends money and resources to promote a ballot issue, it should register and report that activity like any other political committee, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The unanimous ruling left school districts in a quandary. They're required to provide the public with information about ballot questions, like how much it would cost taxpayers and what the money would be used for. But districts don't have the authority to promote or advocate for ballot issues -- and filing a campaign finance report would be a sign that they've crossed the line to do just that.
So don't expect an avalanche of new campaign finance reports from the school districts.
"We anticipate that schools across Minnesota will continue [to conduct ballot campaigns] as they always have," said Keith Hovis, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.
The Supreme Court ruling delighted Vote No groups that have battled local referendums. Under state law, committees that spend $750 or more to promote a ballot question are subject to state campaign finance reporting requirements.
"It's a great step forward," said Minneapolis attorney Erick Kaardal. He brought the case on behalf St. Louis County residents who believed their school district had crossed the line into advocacy during a 2009 special election over a $79 million referendum.
"In the long run, it's actually going to be good for the districts, to increase transparency," said Kaardal, who unsuccessfully brought similar cases against school districts in St. Anthony and Owatonna.
Whether St. Louis County schools crossed the line will be for a panel of administrative law judges to decide, the high court ruled.
Stephen Knutson, who represented the school district, said schools have always believed they are not political committees.
"A district, by law, has the obligation to provide information" about ballot questions and how they will affect the community, he said. "It's a Catch-22. You're providing information in good faith, but if you file those reports," a district would be admitting that it's engaging in politicking.
Jennifer Brooks 651-925-5049