School Claims Its Tax Hike Emails Don't Invade Privacy - but Opponent's Would

No one gets to ask, ‘Why is the district NOT in need of tax hike?’

When Livingston County resident Wes Nakagiri saw an email from his local Hartland Consolidated Schools promoting a half-mill, $600,000 tax increase on the May 2 ballot, he requested a list of the emails the school district used so he could present the other side.

Nakagiri submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the district for the email list it used but was denied. Hartland Superintendent Chuck Hughes told Nakagiri in a letter that under the district’s interpretation of state law, releasing the email addresses would be an “unwarranted invasion of individual’s privacy.”

Hughes didn’t respond to a question from Michigan Capitol Confidential asking if the school district had itself violated this standard by using personal email addresses to electioneer on behalf of its upcoming tax increase vote.

Across the state, dozens of school districts are asking residents for a tax hike on May 2 and using school resources to warn residents of alleged dire consequences if voters say “no.”

The Hartland district wants a three-mill property tax increase (called a sinking fund tax). The tax would fund improvements that — according to the district — would “continue to provide our students a safe, secure and healthy environment.”

Hartland and other school districts use a technique familiar to that of a salesman, framing their pitch in a preconceived conclusion: “Why is the district in need of a Sinking Fund?”

A Kent County Intermediate School District flier used a similar method, casting a tax increase in glowing terms. Among the claims for the tax increase:

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— “Give students living in poverty a good start.”

— “Strengthening our schools strengthens our future workforce and develops and attracts strong talent right her in West Michigan.”

— “Our responsibility as a community to work together to ensure our students have access to a high-quality education that helps them learn, achieve and be college and career ready.”

Despite their obvious intent, these and countless similar communications from many other school districts are not considered to violate a law that prohibits the use of public resources to take sides in an election. That’s because the Secretary of State’s elections bureau has defined “taking sides” very narrowly, saying that only “express advocacy” is prohibited. Meaning the only thing districts cannot say is, “Vote Yes.”

And even if they use the forbidden words, sanctions often amount to minimal penalties, such as a $100 fine, or even just requiring officials to promise to not do it again.

Eric Doster, an attorney who is general counsel to the state Republican party, says nothing will change unless the law is changed. “Until the Legislature takes action to protect taxpayers, schools and other local governments are able to hide behind the campaign finance ‘loophole’ to spend public tax dollars to raise even more public tax dollars.”

“Every year, schools and other local government waste millions of dollars to ‘educate’ voters why they need to vote ‘yes’ on these millages without actually using the words ‘vote yes’,” he said. “The ordinary citizen lacks the funds to compete with the public relations machine of a school, library, or city.”

In 2015 Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law that would have halted such abuses by prohibiting local governments and school districts that placed a tax hike or local measure on the ballot from disseminating information about the proposal during the 60 days before the vote. Local governments and school districts sued in federal court, and U.S. District Judge John O’Meara accepted an agreement between the Secretary of State and local governments and schools that it would not be enforced. The law was said to be too vague.


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