By Mark Barnes
A lot has been said in the community about ethical violations from both sides of the failed Kuna school levy election on March 11. Those for the levy claim that individuals in the community, named and unnamed, produced misleading materials to sway voters. Anti-levy advocates claim that the school district used school time, materials and their website to promote the levy’s passing. Kuna Melba News has been investigating these allegations since the election and has come to several conclusions.
What is always in question is the selective presentation of data, statistics and information to lean an argument in one’s favor. It is the nature of debate.
In the case of anti-levy advocates: Michael Law, a Kuna School Board Trustee, has been accused of violating the school board code of ethics by residents and at least one other school board trustee.
Kuna School Board Chairman Carl Ericson said that no action or investigation will be conducted regarding Michael Law.
“He was exorcising his First Amendment right as a private citizen,” Ericson said. “His vote [against the levy] was one vote, just like everybody else’s vote in the room.” Referring to his public actions against the levy, Ericson said, “He never, ever, made it an issue of ‘I’m a trustee. I’m not in favor of this. You need to vote no.’”
“The code of ethics is a guideline,” Ericson added. “I’m sorry, but a long time ago it was established that the United States Constitution trumps everything else.”
He added that while Law’s actions may or may not violate the guideline, ”Doing something about it would violate the First Amendment, freedom of speech.”
Many residents felt the brochure mailed out to voters contained inaccurate or misleading information. During review, the numbers included on the brochure was determined to differ slightly from data researched by KMN. A figure of $822 in annual taxes per $100,000 property value was quoted in the brochure comparing it to Boise ($611), Meridian ($460) and Melba ($446) for the amounts of school levies in 2013. According to the Ada County Assessor’s office these numbers differ. In 2013 the actual number in Kuna was $740.78 for the school district levy per $100,000. In 2012, the amount was $786.13. Boise’s 2013 school levy was $570.96 and Meridian’s $464.39 per $100,000 property value.
When questioned about the discrepancy, Michael Law, who’s phone number and email appeared on the brochures, said that these numbers included an emergency levy and were pulled from other school district’s budgets and tax information online. He added that those numbers are updated frequently by school districts and may differ now rather than when he put together the brochure.
The pamphlet also claims a per pupil rate of $4,494 per student but that the real budget is $7,254 with a $6 million carryover. KMN found this extremely confusing and was unable to match these numbers using available budgetary and expense data publically posted on the Kuna School District Website.
The state does provide foundation funds of $4,494 per student but with additional revenue sources, including the levy, the school district says that the estimated 2013-2014 budget of $27,600,000 with 5,090 students would be $5,422 per student, still far less than the $7,254 claimed in the brochure. The average state foundation funding per student is $5,438, nearly $1,000 more than what the state provides Kuna per student.
We found that although pro-levy advocates might disagree with policies and philosophies espoused in the pamphlet, most of the statements are a matter of opinion that would have difficulty being tested with actual numbers or facts. Some answers would require a line-by-line analysis of the expense reports posted publically. We did find that at a minimum, the information was presented in a confusing manner, whether it was intentional or not, that made the anti-levy faction’s case.
Also in question was the appearance of signs that some felt confused the voting public as to taxes going up. In reality, taxes are already at that level and the failure of the levy would create a situation where taxes would go down. Although KMN has found people who know who was behind the signs, they did not disclose their identity. Current election law does not require disclosure of who is behind such political activity. Ultimately, we determined that the language used on the signs amounts to a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation depending upon one’s point of view.
On the anti-levy side, opponents accused the school district of promoting the passage of the levy for their own benefit, a clear violation if that did happen. A letter posted to the Kuna School District website on February 11 by superintendent Wendy Johnson included information for those who want to help.
“Upon reading this,” it says, “I know many of you will want to know what you can do to help. To remind you, Idaho Code stipulates that school property may not be used to advocate political purposes. This means that you are unable to use district equipment (i.e. phones, email, computers, etc.) or time to advocate for or against the levy. You can volunteer your free time to a community group called the Friends of the Kuna School District.”
It then listed six of the steering committee members of the Friends of the Kuna School District group.
See the web message from Superintendent Wendy Johnson that is in question here:
The Idaho Attorney General office cited the public purpose doctrine and pointed us to a previous opinion when we asked for clarification on this matter. On January 20, 1996, the Idaho Attorney General concluded in an opinion involving Superintendent Anne C. Fox vs. Representative Bill Sali.
“If public resources or public funds are used in any way related to a ballot issue, there must be equal access to the funds or resources on the part of both opponents and proponents of a ballot measure.” It goes on to state that, “Idaho law does not provide specific remedies against public entities, officers, or employees who violate the prohibition against expenditure of public funds in support of or in opposition to a ballot measure. There is no Idaho case law on this point. Criminal statutes may apply, but more likely any remedy would be civil in nature.”
Other allegations of school district employees using copy paper, copiers, or school time to advocate a yes vote have not been substantiated nor has any evidence been presented to KMN or discovered.