School board wrestles with funds for advocacy

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2004

A proposed Juneau School District policy that would let it spend public money to take sides on a ballot measure is intended to protect the district from potential claims it has broken state election-spending laws, administrators say.

But the Juneau School Board's Policy Committee, meeting Thursday, couldn't agree to pass along the policy to the full board. The three-member panel will take up the topic again on April 15.

The policy would match state law, which allows school districts to advocate a position on a ballot measure as long as they previously appropriate money for that purpose. School districts can provide impartial information without making a specific appropriation.

Local school officials said they don't intend to spend public money to advocate in election issues. A city election is planned for May 25 to decide whether to spend 1999 bond funds for a high school at Dimond Park, and school officials have said they will leave the advocacy to citizens' groups.

But the school district's attorney, Ann Gifford, said that passing the proposed policy and appropriating a few hundred dollars would protect the district from complaints that its activities, even if intended to be impartial, were violating the law.

School Board member Julie Morris said the policy was open to abuse.

"I don't like it. Just because something in law says we can do something doesn't make it right," she told the committee.

In the past, the district has produced information sheets about school bond measures. The School Board's current policy allows spending public funds in elections only to provide impartial information.

But sometimes citizens have questioned whether the materials were impartial, and there are gray areas in the law, Gifford said.

School Board member Bob Van Slyke said he prefers the current policy. If the board adopts the proposed policy, it should include a statement explaining that the policy is intended to protect the district from complaints that it has broken the law, he said.

School Board member Phyllis Carlson said the board is responsible for protecting the district and should approve the policy.

"Without this, we open ourselves to the challenge that we look like we're advocating for one side or the other on whatever particular issue it is," she said.



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