The Juneau School District is not allowed to spend public money to advocate a position in the upcoming election about building a high school at Dimond Park, the Alaska Public Offices Commission said Thursday.
The five-member appointed commission was responding to a complaint filed by former Juneau City Manager Dave Palmer, who said state election-spending law clearly requires such appropriations to come through a state statute or a municipal ordinance.
The Juneau School Board, following the advice of the APOC staff in February, had appropriated $750 on its own last month. But the staff issued a recommendation to the contrary on Tuesday.
A special election that would block building a high school at Dimond Park is set for May 25.
The commission's unanimous decision, rendered orally at the end of a teleconferenced hearing between Anchorage and Juneau, isn't likely to satisfy either side of the issue and would affect school districts statewide.
The latest APOC staff interpretation of the election-spending law, issued Tuesday and confirmed by the commissioners Thursday, sketched out a way for school districts within municipalities to legally spend public money to advocate in elections.
APOC suggested those school districts should include a sum for advocacy in their annual budgets, which undergo public scrutiny. The ordinance in which the municipal assembly appropriates local funds for schools would count as the ordinance that appropriates the advocacy funds.
To Palmer, that process isn't specific enough or of practical value to the public. Under APOC's scenario, the public could comment to assemblies about the advocacy line item in school districts' budgets, but by law assemblies can't tell school districts how to spend their funds, he said.
He told the commissioners and APOC staff that a school board should ask an assembly for advocacy funds for a specific ballot measure.
"You can't have the specificity the law requires if there's just a lump sum in the (school district) budget to cover any contingency that comes up," Palmer said.
Ann Gifford, attorney for the Juneau School District, said requiring school boards to ask assemblies for advocacy funds would allow assemblies to deny them the money while giving themselves money to advocate for a contrary view. That would be inequitable and contrary to the intent of the state election-spending law, she said.
Gifford also pointed out that under APOC's scenario school boards in places that don't have municipalities wouldn't have a practical method for gaining an appropriation to advocate. Those school districts, called rural education attendance areas, aren't subject to municipal ordinances and don't receive local funds.
"If this is the only way that school districts can spend money to advocate a position, then REAAs will be left out in the cold," Gifford said.
Commissioner Larry Wood asked if it would be that difficult for REAAs to include a line item for advocacy in their budgets when the state appropriates their funds.
But Gifford said the Legislature doesn't approve each REAA's budget. It just gives a lump sum for all districts in the state, and the state Department of Education follows a formula in allocating the funds.
Meanwhile, Juneau School Board members said they feel stifled this year by APOC's decision.
"I think the finding of the commission has a very chilling effect on the ability of the School Board to provide any information," said School Board member Bob Van Slyke.
The state election-spending law allows public entities, including school boards, to provide nonpartisan information about elections without a specific appropriation. The problem is that school boards can't be sure that information intended as nonpartisan will be ruled that way by APOC or a court if someone challenges a school board.
"We did want to be able to at least give our official position, and this is stifling the School Board," said School Board member Julie Morris. "I feel like I have a gag on me."
For the upcoming election, as in any election, School Board members are free to use their own time and money to advocate for the high school.
Superintendent Peggy Cowan is free to tell citizens what the School Board's official position is on the school, because communicating with the public is part of her regular duties. That's in keeping with state law.
The district can spend public funds to tell voters nonpartisan information about the election, such as its date and where the polling places are. But any effort beyond that would risk stepping into advocacy without having a legal appropriation.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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