SAINT PAUL— A three-judge panel of the Office of Administrative Hearings has reprimanded the St. Louis County School District for violating the state’s campaign finance law, by failing to report its spending to promote passage of a 2009 referendum. The decision was issued late Friday, May 30.
The panel further found that the district had disseminated information to voters, through newsletters and brochures, ahead of the ballot measure that was both inaccurate and misleading to voters. Much of that information was produced for the district by Johnson Controls, which stood to earn more than $11 million from the passage of the bond measure.
The panel specifically cited outdated financial claims made by the district as well as information the district provided on the tax implications of the vote, which the panel found was presented “unfairly.” The panel noted that the information the district sent to voters had made it appear as if it faced a dire financial crisis when, in fact, the district’s financial outlook had improved significantly months before.
The panel also cited the district’s unfair presentation of the benefits of their facilities improvement plan, which involved the closure of community schools in Tower, Cook, Cotton, and Orr. “By stressing only exaggerated benefits of a “yes” vote and then describing only the most extreme negative possibilities of a “no” vote, the District was not providing balanced informational material to its readers; it was advocating for a specific result— the passage of the ballot question,” wrote the judges.
The panel further found that the district spent in excess of $750 to promote the ballot measure, which triggers the reporting requirement under state law.
“This is a major victory for taxpayers,” said Tower Mayor Steve Abrahamson, who was one of two named plaintiffs in the suit. He was joined by Tim Kotzian, the president of the Coalition for Community Schools, which formed in the wake of the 2009 referendum. “We’ve complained for years that the school district narrowly passed its $79 million bond measure only by confusing and misinforming its voters,” said Abrahamson. “After three days of testimony and dozens of exhibits, the judges agreed with us. School officials have an obligation to apologize to district residents for what they did."
The complaint against the district was originally filed in 2010, but it spent over three years in litigation, which culminated in a landmark state Supreme Court decision last year. The case was remanded to the Office of Administration Hearings, which completed its evidentiary examination in April.
The Timberjay will publish a much more detailed report and editorial on the ruling in its June 6 edition.