VOL. 17 ISSUE NO. 21   |   MAY 25 – 31, 2011


CCUSD admonished for using district resources to influence elections

District stipulates to preliminary injunction, will not commit 2000 bond funds to projects not authorized by voters

debbi burdickCCUSD – Superintendent Debbi Burdick (r) issued a press release, which she posted on the district’s website Thursday, May 19, announcing the board was going to vote on the approval of a November override election during the May 24 board meeting, the district’s last meeting before the June 1 deadline to call for a November election. 

The press release begins, “After suffering through nearly $6 million in cuts from the state over the last three years, the CCUSD Governing Board prepares to vote on holding an override.”

It quotes Attorney Steve Hart as saying, “Because of the state budget cuts, local contributions and funding become critical. Without the renewal of the override funds, the district will lose about 60 teachers and the quality of programs that go with them.”

Hart is chairman of LearnYes.org, which the press release refers to as a “political community organization created to support CCUSD and its educational measures.”

The press release then encourages readers to visit LearnYes.org’s website.

Just for the record, LearnYes.org is not a “community organization.” It is a political action committee (PAC) whose statement of organization clearly states it is a political committee formed specifically to support passage of a ballot measure.

Board President David Schaefer also chimed in on the press release with, “If an election is called, the LearnYes.org organization stands ready to support the decision and rally the community in support of its schools.”

christina kohnAfter receiving a link to Burdick’s press release, Goldwater Institute Attorney Christina Kohn (r), who is involved in the lawsuit challenging the district’s unconstitutional use of bond funds for purposes other than those approved by voters, said, “After a cursory overview of the press release, I’d say this is troubling,” adding, “What is also troubling is the advertisement of the LearnYes.org group.”

On Monday, May 23, Kohn sent a letter to Burdick expressing those concerns and urged her “to be mindful of A.R.S. § 15-511(A), which prohibits the use of school district resources to influence the outcome of elections.”

Citing A.R.S. § 15-511(G), Kohn pointed out, “Using public resources to advocate in favor of the 2011 override election, including advertising a political advocacy group, could expose school district officials to personal liability.”

LearnYes.org has already held a fundraiser to support passage of a November override election that hadn’t yet made it to a board agenda.

Apparently, Hart, Burdick and at least Schaefer knew of the district’s plans to call for an override before it was discussed in public.

The board is asking voters to pass a 15 percent M&O override this time around. This is something newly permitted by statute, whereas previously M&O overrides were capped at 10 percent.

Burdick, Schaefer and the rest of the board entered into a consent agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in December 2008, which addressed the district’s posting of documents on its website advocating passage of the 2006 budget override and bond elections.

As part of the agreement, the district agreed to remove the material from its website. It also agreed that the superintendent and all governing board members attend a training class conducted by Maricopa County Elections Department on permitted and restricted political activity. Newly elected or appointed governing board members were also required to attend such a training class.

It also stated, failure to comply with the requirements or restrictions imposed by the consent agreement would cause the district to become liable in a civil action for civil penalties, with the person(s) determined to be responsible for the violation to be held personally accountable for the payment of all penalties and misused funds.

In fact, after visiting the LearnYes.org website, Kohn stated, “Indeed, LearnYes’ homepage recognizes that ‘[b]y law, district resources cannot be used to influence the outcome of the election.’”

Citing the Arizona Attorney General’s opinion, once again, Kohn pointed out communications can still be in violation without explicitly asking voters to “vote for” or “support” a ballot measure or candidate and stated, “In its totality, this release reasonably leads voters to conclude that the district is urging them to support the override issue.”

In conclusion, Kohn urged Burdick to withdraw the press release and refrain from using district resources to influence elections, stating, “The Goldwater Institute will continue to monitor CCUSD’s use of public resources to advocate in favor of the override election and will take appropriate action should the district continue to use public resources in an improper and unlawful manner.”

On April 29, the district stipulated to a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit challenging its use of the 2000 bond funds, whereas it agreed it would not commit money from the 2000 bond program to projects not covered by the purposes set forth in the publicity pamphlet, pending a decision by the court on the merits of the case, except that up to 10 percent of the bond proceeds may be used for general capital expenses.

The lawsuit challenges the district on two grounds. First, the district breached its contract with voters.

Kohn said Arizona courts should uphold this contract between voters and the school district.
Second, she said, the new law, sponsored by then Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Dist. 7, as a floor amendment to the 2010 omnibus budget bill, violates the Arizona Constitution’s special law clause, which prohibits passage of bills that don’t apply equally to all.

However, on May 23, the district sent out an e-mail on behalf of Cactus Shadows High School Principal Steve Bebee announcing, “Cactus Shadows is very excited to be getting under way with construction of our new parking lots and new building.” New building?
Perhaps it’s time for Burdick to follow her own posted “Leadership Creed,” and “model high moral purpose.”

And, with the downturn in the economy affecting just about everyone, it may be time for Burdick to “embrace change, when necessary, as an opportunity.”

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