The most contentious issue last South Burlington Town Meeting Day was the $209 million school bond vote. Leading up to that vote, the South Burlington School District placed a series of advocacy advertisements with The Other Paper encouraging voters to support the bond issue. These ads were paid for with taxpayer funds.
I complained to the school district and school board that it was improper, if not illegal, to use public funds to place advocacy ads.
Not surprisingly, both the school board and the district disagreed that the ads were improper. In February 2020, I filed a formal complaint with the Vermont attorney general’s office concerning the expenditures.
In September, I was notified by the AG’s Office that the South Burlington School District filed a campaign finance disclosure with the Vermont secretary of state’s office.
As part of the disclosure, the South Burlington School District admits it “made contributions to affect a local (municipal) election held in: (sic) March 2020.” The disclosure lists a series of production costs and placement costs for the advertisements. The total amount spent on these ads was $5,997.75. Link to disclosure: sos.vermont.gov/media/wjkjhgok/south-burlington-school-district-march-2020.pdf
Apparently, this type of spending is still considered appropriate as the school board has failed to restrict or regulate this practice. The only transparency into this practice came after the Attorney General’s Office intervened. For a number of reasons, using taxpayer funds to advocate for specific outcomes should be banned.
The system is designed for the school district to present the voters objective facts and figures (no spin or slant) and then the voters decide the course of action.
School districts do not need taxpayer subsidies to deliver their message. Government at every level has the ability to present its message without using public funds for advertising. Government entities can call public meetings and issue press releases, essentially at will. Additionally, it is unequivocally wrong to take money allocated for a particular purpose, whether for education or other government functions and divert it to another use. In the case of the school district, they used that money to persuade voters to buy into their spin of the issue.
We would not allow police departments or fire departments to lobby for more cars or trucks with money allocated for training or overtime.
Why do we put up with it from the school district?
There is no reason to think that this advocacy spending will be limited to budget and bond issues. At present, the school district is free to spend on any issue. At some point, South Burlington taxpayers may see ads advocating changes in curriculum, cuts to extracurricular activities, changes in hours, changes in COVID responses or in classroom sizes. Individual taxpayers may have already made up their minds about particular issues, but the school district will force these voters to subsidize ads they do not believe in.
That brings us to present day. There are five candidates vying for two open school board seats. I encourage the candidates to discuss the propriety of using public funds for advocacy advertisements. If the school board believes these ads are proper, what restrictions should be imposed? How does the school board ensure transparency in these expenditures?