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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


May/June 2017

FAQs: Referendum activities conducted by school officials
By a committee of members of the Illinois Council of School Attorneys

The Illinois Council of School Attorneys publishes guidance as part of its continuing effort to provide assistance to school leaders. These responses to FAQs regarding referendum activities conducted by school officials represent the combined thinking of committee members. Potential conflict questions may arise that are not addressed in this guidance. This guidance is published for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. For legal advice or a legal opinion on a specific question, you should consult a lawyer.

1. School officials and employees usually want to support a referendum question that has been proposed by the school board. How does state law limit their referendum-related activity?

Two laws significantly limit the scope of referendum-related activity permitted by school officials and school employees: the Election Code’s interference prohibition (10 ILCS 5/9-25.1) and the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (5 ILCS 430/).

The Election Code’s interference prohibition bars the expenditure of public funds to advocate votes for or against a referendum, but permits use of public funds to disseminate factual data. Questions 2 and 3 in this publication address the Election Code’s interference prohibition.

The State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (Ethics Act) prohibits State employees and officials from engaging in certain political activities. It also requires local government units including school boards to adopt an ordinance or policy “no less restrictive” than the Act’s provisions. This means that the Ethics Act’s prohibitions apply to board members and employees, including its ban on engaging in political activity in certain situations. Questions 4 and beyond in this publication address the Ethics Act.

2. May the district spend money to publicize a referendum?

Yes, provided district funds are not used to advocate for or against a referendum. The Election Code’s interference prohibition states:

No public funds shall be used to urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition, or be appropriated for political or campaign purposes to any candidate or political organization. This Section shall not prohibit the use of public funds for dissemination of factual information relative to any proposition appearing on an election ballot, or [inapplicable language omitted].

This law allows school district resources to be used for brochures, webpostings, and other communications that describe the proposition, but not to urge a yes or no vote. Communications using district resources should be factual and include relevant data, such as enrollment projections, comparisons with other districts, the status of current facilities or programs, and the district’s financial condition. These communications should avoid persuasive language, such as, urge, save, shatter, ensure, break, and devastating. Violating this law is not a ground to invalidate or challenge the results on a referendum question ( Sherman v. Indian Trails Public Library District, 975 N.E.2d 1173 (Ill.App.1st, 2012)). Any person who violates this law is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor. Upon the second or any subsequent violation, the person violating it is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

3. Will district-funded communications to publicize a referendum constitute electioneering communications?

No. Communications that do not ask voters to vote for or against the question are specifically exempt from the definition of electioneering communications (P.A. 96-832 amended the definition of “electioneering communication” such that it overturned Citizens Organized to Save Tax Cap v. State Bd. of Elections, 910 N.E.2d 605 (Ill.App.3d., 2009)).

4. May an individual school board member or school employee support a referendum?

The answer to this question depends on the facts. Many referendum-related activities are within the definition of political activities for purposes of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (Ethics Act). The following are some examples:

  • Planning, conducting, or participating in a public opinion poll … for or against any referendum question.
  • Soliciting votes … for or against any referendum question or helping in an effort to get voters to the polls.
  • Initiating for circulation, preparing, circulating, reviewing, or filing a petition … for or against any referendum question.
  • Distributing, preparing for distribution, or mailing campaign literature, campaign signs, or other campaign material … for or against any referendum question.
  • Campaigning … for or against any referendum question.
  • Managing or working on a campaign … for or against any referendum question.

A further list of examples is available on the online document at www.iasb.com/law/ref_FAQ.pdf . This overarching question is addressed further in the remaining questions below.

5. When are referendum-related activities prohibited?

The answer to this question depends on the actor (board member or employee) and the context. The following list summarizes the ban on referendum-related political activities:

  • Employees may not intentionally perform any political activity during any time they are being compensated;
  • Board members and employees may not misappropriate or use any district property or resources in connection with the political activity;
  • Board members and employees may not require other board members or employees to perform a political activity; and
  • Board members and employees may not award employees additional compensation or benefits for participating in any political activity.

6. What types of referendum-related activities are school employees prohibited from conducting?

Employees are prohibited from engaging in political activities concerning a referendum during any time they are being compensated (compensated time). Determining compensated time for the superintendent, a principal, or any salaried employee can be difficult. High-ranking, salaried employees must carefully consider their actions on a case-by-case basis.

During compensated time or when on district property, a school employee should not wear a button pro- or anti-referendum, distribute pro- or anti-referendum brochures, ask others how they plan to vote, distribute pencils or other favors with advocacy messages, or engage in any other activity in support of or opposition to the referendum.

7. May a superintendent or other administrator publish an article in the district newsletter or website describing the referendum’s rationale?

Yes. The article discussing a proposed referendum’s rationale must be carefully worded to avoid advocacy. Similarly, when an administrator is expressing his or her views on the referendum in an official capacity, such as when being interviewed by news media representatives, the responses should be as factual as possible rather than advocating a position.

8. When may employees support their school district’s referendum?

Off the clock and away from district property, employees may freely engage in referendum-related activities provided they do not use district resources. For example, employees may post yard signs, wear advocacy buttons, distribute literature, urge yes votes, attend referendum committee meetings, and contribute to citizens’ referendum committees. Indeed, the Local Governmental Employees Political Rights Act provides that no school district “may make or enforce any rule or ordinance that in any way inhibits or prohibits any of its employees from exercising the employee’s political right.” It also provides that public employees may not “engage in political activities while at work or on duty.” (50 ILCS 135/10(a) and (b))

9. May a superintendent or other administrator support a referendum during meetings sponsored by non-district sponsored clubs or focus groups?

Possibly. When articulating support for a referendum, a superintendent or other administrator should make it clear that he or she is providing a personal opinion. At a minimum, an administrator should not participate while on school grounds, during work hours, or at a school function. In addition, the administrator should express that he or she is not speaking as part of his or her official duties and is not on compensated time. Each administrator should evaluate the anticipated community response before accepting invitations to appear before non-district clubs and groups.

10. When and how may board members support a referendum?

All of the limitations on the use of district resources also apply to board members: they may not misappropriate or use any district property or resources to support a referendum. They may not, for example, use the district website, letterhead, computers or office equipment for referendum-related activities. When they are on school district property and during school board meetings, board members should adhere to a factual approach.

Since board members are not compensated by the school district they serve, the rules concerning compensated time do not apply to them. This gives board members more latitude to advocate for a referendum. Away from district property, board members may individually engage in referendum-related activities. For example, they may post yard signs, wear advocacy buttons, distribute literature, urge yes votes, and attend and contribute to citizens’ referendum committees.

Important: If a majority of a quorum of district board members is present (three members on a seven-member board) during a referendum-related activity, the Open Meetings Act may apply and, even if they are acting as private citizens, there may be an appearance that the Act applies.

When speaking, writing letters to the editor, or taking other actions in public, however, they are urged to do so as individuals and not to use an official title, such as member of the Board of Education or Board President. When writing letters to the editor it is a good idea to check the practice of your local newspaper, as some routinely add the letter writer’s title after his or her name whenever the writer is a public official, such that it appears the letter was written in an official capacity, instead of inserting an editorial comment which notes the title of the writer.

11. Is a citizens’ referendum committee bound by the restrictions in the Ethics Act?

No, provided its members who are school employees or board members abide by the requirements under the Ethics Act as well as the Election Code’s interference prohibition.

12. What are the requirements for a citizens’ referendum committee?

A citizens’ referendum committee may provide an excellent means for advocating in favor of a referendum. Of course, all the limitations on individual school officials and employees, as discussed above, still apply to them even as members of a citizens’ referendum committee. To avoid even the appearance of impropriety it is recommended that the chairperson of such a committee not be a board member, the superintendent, or even an employee of the district. And, the school secretary, for example, should not help organize meetings or enlist members of a committee during paid time and on school grounds.

Under the Illinois Election Code, a citizen committee formed to support or oppose a public question being put to voters is required to organize as a ballot initiative committee, if it accepts contributions or makes expenditures exceeding $5,000 during any 12-month period (10 ILCS 5/9-1.8(b)). Unless their work constitutes donation of an in-kind service or is provided with a promise or expectation of compensation, the time individuals spend volunteering is not a reportable contribution. Detailed treatment of the reporting requirements applicable to a ballot initiative committee is beyond the scope of this FAQ, and the committee should consult legal counsel. The Illinois State Board of Elections publishes extensive guidance material on its website at www.elections.il.gov/ addressing campaign contributions and disclosures, among other topics.

13. What are the rules for allowing outside groups to use school facilities to advocate for or against a referendum?

School districts must make their facilities available to such groups, regardless of the group’s viewpoint, on the same basis that other outside organizations are granted access. This means the same availability rules and rental charge according to the applicable board policy (see the sample PRESS policy 8:20, Community Use of School Facilities). A district can easily become indirectly involved in referendum activity, such as by allowing the referendum committee to store advocacy signs on district property, use the district copy machines even if the committee supplies its own paper and ink, or use the administrative office after hours for a phone bank. The district should obtain an opinion from its attorney whether these indirect activities are permissible.

Please periodically check the IASB School Law website at www.iasb.com/law/ for updates to this publication and other helpful ICSA publications.  

Editor’s note: The following attorneys are members of this committee: Heather Brickman, Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, LLP; John Izzo, Hauser Izzo, LLC ; Heidi Katz, Robbins Schwartz; Alan Mullins, Scariano, Himes, & Petrarca, Chtd.; Melinda Selbee, Illinois Association of School Boards; and Peter Wilson, Jr., Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C.

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