Are Ethic Laws being violated & Public Funds being used to promote the upcoming referendum?
There’s some concern that the flier(s) being circulated to promote the formation of an “External” Referendum Committee for the November 4th ballot are actually being promoted by an “Internal” employee of Round Lake Area School District 116, Heather Bennett, who just happens to be Executive Assistant to Superintendent Dr. Constance Collins. Not only is salaried employee Bennett a point person (according to the info on the flier) who is using a District 116 email address and may be fielding or returning calls from the school grounds, the flier is also being actively promoted on many of the various school’s Facebook pages.
A similar request for volunteers “to help promote a referendum” is prominently being displayed on the Round Lake Area School District 116 home page. That would indicate that even MORE employees besides Bennett are involved and being given instructions to add it to their local school pages.
According to the Illinois Association of School Boards pamphlet governing Illinois Laws Effecting the School Finance Referendum it clearly says “in their official capacities, school board members and employees must show equal deference to opponents and proponents. Administrators, for example, cannot lawfully use school time or school premises to organize the work of a campaign committee.”
The State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (5 ILCS 430/1-1 et seq. (Public Act: 93-0615, effective November 19, 2003, and Public Act: 93-0617, effective December 9, 2003) limits the use of public funds in communications regarding public policy referenda. Until the ethics law was enacted in 2003, the older statute provided the primary guidance for school officials in deciding what they could and could not do in communicating about a referendum. Thus, it was generally held by most school attorneys that the school board could use public resources to explain to voters its reasons for putting a finance proposition on the ballot so long as its communication was balanced and as fair to opponents as to proponents. Public resources should not be used to present a one-sided or distorted point of view. A state appellate court in 2009 went even further in regulating the use of public funds in election communications. The court held that any communication that “refers to a clearly identified question of public policy that will appear on the ballot” must be treated as an electioneering communication.
Like members of the board, school district employees enjoy the common rights of citizenship on their own time. They, too, can perform referendum work so long as they are not on compensated time or using district equipment or supplies. School employees should not engage in activities designed to support the referendum during their work day (or during “compensated time”). The Illinois Council of School Attorneys has advised that school district staff members limit their comments about the referendum to the facts when on compensated time and express support for a referendum only when off school grounds and not at a school function. And when expressing support, staff should note that they are not speaking as part of their official duties and are not on compensated time.
The Election Interference Prohibition Act (10 ILCS 5/9-25.1 et seq.) provides the following:
“No public funds shall be used to urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition, or be appropriated for political or campaign purpose to any candidate or political organization. This provision shall not prohibit the use of public funds for dissemination of factual information relative to any proposition appearing on an election ballot..”
It would appear as though both Bennett’s involvement as an employee as well as the promotional effort being made on school websites and associated school pages (promoting the referendum) violates the guidelines in the Illinois Association of School Boards pamphlet
“External” Referendum Committee supporting referendum being actively promoted on school Facebook pages
[portions above were “bolded” for emphasis]
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