March 2, 2012
As Olentangy levy activists and proponents alike brace themselves for the upcoming special election, certain campaign techniques have come into question.
Specifically, the recent rally that called on students “to put a face on this levy vote,” has irked some concerned voters.
The rally was a “Vote For Us” event held by the Olentangy High School Athletic Booster campaign. It invited athletic directors, music groups and DECA “to engage their coaches, liaisons, advisors, students and parents,” to rally April 11 in favor of the levy.
The flyer boasts that the event would “generate the very important emotional component.”
Or, to others, generate pressure for the students to take a political stance. As one anonymous blogger expressed, “(Pro-levy campaigns) use underhanded promotion tactics to encourage new, 18-year-old voters to exercise their new civic rights to support the levy out of a sense of school pride and stick their parents and neighbors with the tax bill for years to come.”
For similar reasons, the Responsible Olentangy Citizens (ROC) anti-levy group also criticized Olentangy teachers for wearing pro-levy campaign buttons in the classroom.
Their concerns beg the question: When groups are campaigning for an issue that would support the school, where must schools draw the line?
The Ohio Revised Code 9.03 states that governing bodies of a political subdivision may not use public funds to publish, distribute or communicate information that supports the passage of a levy or bond issue.
Yet even in regards to “public funds,” the state auditor’s role is to issue a citation if a district used public money to promote the levy.
“The typical ground rules are that you are allowed to provide information about the levy, how it is going to be used, and why it is needed, without getting into an advocacy position,” said Delaware County auditor George Kaitsa. “Basically, be fact-based.”
Other than that, the issues such as rallies and campaign buttons are considered “local.”
“The school would have to decide what’s appropriate,” said Secretary of State spokesman Matt McClellan.
Regarding the Olentangy levy-bond issue slated for the May 3 ballot, superintendent Wade Lucas said the district’s practices have been “fair.”
“Do we promote the levy in the classroom? Absolutely not. Is there a policy? I don’t think there is a policy, but there is professional judgement,” Lucas said.
“Keep the levy out in the community and educating kids during the work day,” he added.
Regarding the rally, Lucas said the district would have overstepped its bounds if it mandated student attendance. According to the language on the fliers, it did not.
Regarding classroom discussions, Lucas said that schools would have crossed the line if educators were telling students how to vote.
“I’m not just talking about levies,” Lucas explained. “We owe it to our students to take them through the decision-making process.” Nevertheless, he said teachers are allowed to exercise their freedom of speech by wearing pro-levy campaign buttons during the school day. The buttons would represent an individual’s belief rather than the school’s.
An ROC member reported seeing a pro-levy banner hanging in the Shanahan Middle School attendance office — which, unlike the buttons, would project a school-wide opinion rather than an individual teacher’s.
However, Lucas said “no one is aware” of a banner having been displayed.
Lucas said one “mistake” was made, but corrected.
“All good intentions were in place and we moved on,” said Lucas, declining to describe the mistake other than to say it was a personnel issue. “Again, 16,000 students, one time in the last four to five months — I’d say it’s been pretty fair on our end.”
“What is the law and what are good manners — they’re just things that are in a gray area, and they can come down to your policies,” said Catherine Turcer, Ohio Citizen Action money and politics project director.
“In some cases, they’re not a clear violation, they’re just poor form,” she said.