Top officials in the Portland Public Schools have proved, once again, why we as voters should be diligent in searching for objective sources of information whenever schools want more of our tax dollars.
Last week a compliance investigator from the Oregon Secretary of State's office concluded that eight employees of Portland Schools, including Superintendent Carole Smith, broke state elections laws by trying to persuade, rather than inform, voters about a $548 million school construction and retrofitting bond on the ballot this past May.
Voters rejected the measure - the largest in Portland history - by less than half of one percent.
Each of the eight officials helped to write, edit or approve fliers,
emails and website postings that were heavy on descriptions of the dire
condition of the district's schools, but quite light on what any
reasonable observer would deem relevant data.
How much the bond would cost property owners, for instance.
And when cost estimates were included, they were sometimes shown as
monthly amounts - hardly a relevant figure for property owners who pay
taxes year-round, but a clever way to minimize the dollar amounts.
Election law prohibits public employees from using their position to
lobby voters. The law requires that information sent to parents and
voters be neutral and dispassionate.
One of the employees involved, public information officer Matt Shelby,
told reporters that district employees were aware of the law and
"throughout the process, we took strides to follow, to the best of our
ability, the guidelines set forth."
Apparently their best isn't all that good.
It's hard to conclude otherwise, considering information the district
sent to parents and voters included such terms as "need" and "critical"
and referred to "our" schools and "we."
The state manual that's supposed to help public officials comply with the law recommends against those very things.
The more troubling part of this story, though, is the punishment.
The worst that will happen to those eight employees is that each will pay a $75 fine.
Although they have appealed the investigator's ruling, the violations are so blatant that we expect the fines will stand.
But so what.
A $75 fine isn't likely to deter anyone from repeating the Portland officials' misdeeds.
Unless the Legislature is willing to put real teeth in the elections
law, we'd just as well scrap the thing and let public officials
inundate voters with the best propaganda they can muster.
In the meantime, we'd feel slightly better if those $75 fines - that's
600 bucks all told - were used to offset the bill that Portland Schools
amassed in "educating" voters about the bond.
The tab for the eight-page color brochure that contained some of the more egregious violations was $36,500.