What School Officials Should Remember During Election Season: Educate, Don’t Advocate

The TV ads and yard signs are beginning to pop up, which can only mean one thing: election season is right around the corner. In fact, Election Day, November 3, 2020, is less than 60 days away!  What should school officials remember during election season?  Educate, don’t advocate.

In general, a school district may use district funds to engage in activities in connection with the election, as long as the activity is informational only and does not urge the support or defeat of the measure and is not partisan. Education Code section 7054 prohibits the use of district funds, services, supplies or equipment to urge the support or defeat of a ballot measure or candidate.  However, it also provides that school districts are not prohibited from using these same district resources to provide public information on the effects of a proposed bond measure as long as the information is fair and impartial.

Below are some “do’s” and “don’ts” to keep in mind during this election season.

Permitted Activities:

  • School board members and district officers and employees may:
    • as private citizens and on their own time and with their own resources, participate fully in the political process. They should maintain calendars to document that time spent on the campaign did not occur during work hours.
    • indicate titles when urging support for a ballot measure, but should make clear that their title is for identification purposes only.
    • attend a citizens group at the request of a group to discuss the reasons why the district called an election for the issuance of bonds and for purposes of responding to inquiries from the citizens group.
  • A school district may provide informational materials to the public regarding a ballot measure. A school district may spend funds to provide “a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure.”
  • A school district may organize an effort to encourage voting, including making voter registration and Vote by Mail forms available.

Impermissible Activities:

  • No campaign support or seeking of contributions on school property during school hours.
  • No political activities on school property during school hours.
  • No school equipment used for the reproduction of campaign materials.
  • No school supplies or funds may be used for the reproduction of campaign materials or for the creation of campaign materials that support or oppose a particular candidate.
  • No campaign materials posted on school property, disseminated through district mail services or placed in district mailboxes.

Many of the legal issues raised by the use of school district funds in elections can be avoided entirely if the campaign is conducted by an independent campaign committee supported by donations from the public.  If the committee receives $1,000 or more in contributions in a calendar year, the activities of the campaign committee become subject to the provisions of the Political Reform Act and its regulations.  The campaign committee is required to file a statement of organization with the Secretary of State and will be required to file a series of other reports with the Fair Political Practices Commission (“FPPC”).

To ensure compliance with all the requirements of California’s campaign finance laws, we recommend that organizers of committees consult in advance with the technical assistance division of the FPPC and with their own legal counsel.  The FPPC has a website with helpful information and materials related to the topic. The website can be found at https://www.fppc.ca.gov/.

In summary, a school district may use public funds to disseminate informational material if it is presented in a fair and balanced way.  A district is prohibited, however, from using public funds to campaign for the passage of local bond measure, except that the district’s board can prepare a ballot argument in favor of its own bond measure for inclusion in the voter information pamphlet.  At the request of the public, school board members and administrators may appear at public meetings and explain why the school board called the election and respond to questions.

 

For specific questions or a more comprehensive version of this information, please contact the attorneys at Parker & Covert.

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