Email sparks legal concern
- Published: June 14, 2021
The ground rules for who can support levy campaigns, and when and how they do it, arose this week when a community member questioned the legality of an email forwarded by the Yellow Springs Schools district office.
Judith Hempfling, a former Village Council member, raised her concern in a letter to the editor (see page 4). District Superintendent Terri Holden believes no impropriety occurred.
Hempfling contends that the district breached restrictions outlined in the Ohio Revised Code in forwarding an email from Community Advisory Team member Abigail Cobb to other advisory participants, per Cobb’s request, urging them to write letters to the editor in support of the district’s recently adopted facilities master plan and anticipated levy.
The plan, approved by the school board last month following a recommendation from the superintendent and the 41-member Community Advisory Team, or CAT, calls for construction of a new K–12 facility on the East Enon Road property where the middle/high school campus is currently located. The anticipated cost of the project is over $35 million, though the district expects a reimbursement from the state of more than $9 million.
The board has yet to approve a specific levy measure to put before voters.
In her email, dated Friday, May 28, Cobb implored members of CAT, as well as the separate Educational Visioning Team, to publicly promote the K–12 plan. A recipient of the email shared it with Hempfling, who forwarded a copy to the News.
“Now is the time to write a letter to the editor of the YS News!” Cobb wrote. “We spent months working on the issues surrounding our school buildings. We listened, we read, we talked, shared, discussed. We concluded that the most cost effective, energy efficient, educationally inspiring approach is to build a new K-12 school on the [East] Enon [Road] property. … We need to get the word out now about the merits of this plan and the reasons why we support it.”
Cobb goes on, then, to challenge anti-levy sentiments in the community.
“The opposition to this levy is organized and determined to crush the levy, just like last time,” she wrote. “Make no mistake, they will continue to roll out their ill-informed letters to the editor until everyone forgets why the K–12 plan to rebuild our schools was a good idea. …”
She concludes by encouraging a range of letters — “factual, heartfelt, personal” — from varied sources, “especially parents, students and teachers.”
Hempfling notes that such support is not allowed of school employees, including teachers. She also believes that the act of forwarding Cobb’s email crossed the line of what is permissible.
District Superintendent Terri Holden thinks that the district acted within the law, as there is no levy measure at this time. Asked for her response to Hemplfing’s concern, Holden wrote in an email that Hempfling “is correct” about Ohio Revised Code, or ORC, regulations against district dollars supporting levy campaigns.
“However, as you know, we do not have a bond issue for new facilities on the ballot,” Holden wrote. “I asked [Executive Assistant] Steffanie [Stratton] to forward Abby’s email, per her request, because of that fact.”
Continuing, Holden wrote: “Please know that I clearly understand ORC, and when we are in an active campaign, school district time and resources (including email), cannot and will not be used to encourage voting a certain way on a bond issue. When we get to that point, I am sure that whatever bond committee that exists will have their own communication mechanism.”
She concluded by noting that the ORC does not forbid the sharing of information, however.
“The district is allowed to provide factual information about any bond issue or levy that may be on the ballot, without encouraging support.”
According to a February 2020 release from Auditor of State Keith Faber’s office, citing ORC, section 9.03, “most local governments and public school districts may not use tax dollars to support or oppose levy or bond issues on the ballot.”
The section allows governing bodies, however, to “use public funds to publish and distribute newsletters, or to use any other means, to communicate information about the plans, policies, and operations of the political subdivision …”
Listed restrictions include:
• “Information that supports or opposes the outcome of a levy should not be published by the entity or posting on official social media accounts.”
• “The entity cannot spend money to create and send home political subdivision sponsored levy-related communications that support or oppose the passage of a levy.”
• “A levy committee is not allowed to use their subdivision’s resources such as equipment and supplies free-of-charge. The committee must pay for the usage and the committee with the opposite position shall have the same opportunity.”
• “Public funds should not be used to support a particular campaign committee or fund, political action committee, political party, or candidate.”