Schools can promote their own referendum, but with limits

The rules set by the state depend on who, what and where, according to experts who have been through the process.

Posted on March 6, 2014 at 3:44 p.m.

Arguably, no one wants a school referendum to pass more than those who work in the schools every day.

But state law says that school employees have to follow certain guidelines when it comes to promoting a position on a referendum.

Goshen Community Schools won $17 million in a referendum vote last fall. In the months before the vote, though, school employees had to be careful when talking about the referendum.

Diane Woodworth, superintendent of Goshen schools, said that she and other administrators worked closely with their legal counsel to make sure they followed the law.

"We sent out a letter to our entire GCS staff explaining the guidelines to them," Woodworth said in an email. "We did receive quite a few questions from our staff, but then were always able to answer them promptly."

What schools can't do

School employees, including teachers, can't promote a certain position on the referendum during their normal working hours. But since school employees are also sometimes taxpayers in the district and community members, they can promote the referendum when they aren't at work.

School employees can't use school facilities or equipment to promote a position on the referendum, unless equal privileges are given to a group with a different position on the referendum. 

An example of that happening locally is next Monday, March 10, when the Yes4Elkhart group will be hosting a public meeting to promote the referendum at Pierre Moran Middle School.

Even though the group is using school property, and some members of the group are school employees, that is allowed because the school board has voted to give equal time and space to any group that opposes the referendum.

School employees can't spend money from a school fund to promote the referendum (except for administrators hiring an attorney, architect, engineer, construction manager, or financial adviser to work on a referendum project). But school employees can spend their own money to promote the referendum.

Elkhart superintendent Rob Haworth appeared in a video produced by Z-49 Productions encouraging people to vote "yes" for the school's referenda. But he paid for that video himself, without using school funds.

School employees also can't talk to students about their position on a referendum and they can't send students home with promotional materials for the referendum. 

If a school employee is asked his or her opinion on the referendum during the school day, state law says the employee should acknowledge the referendum and tell the person asking where they can find factual information about it.

What schools can do

Schools can allow students to use school facilities or equipment to report on a referendum for a student newspaper or broadcast.

School employees can join political action committees, like Elkhart's Yes4Elkhart group. They can speak to groups or organizations about the referendum, as long as it isn't during normal working hours.

Superintendents and school board members can advocate for or against the referendum at any time, as long as they don't use public funds. They can't talk to students about their position, however.

Reporting a violation

Members of the community who don't feel that school corporations are following the rules when it comes to promoting a position on a referendum can report that to the county election board, according to Chris Anderson, deputy clerk for Elkhart County.


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