When is a political campaign neither political nor a campaign?
California law prohibits government officials from using taxpayer dollars “for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure.” But on February 13, in the meeting room of the Santa Ana Unified School District, school officials revealed a political campaign that began with shaping public opinion and will end in November with a district-wide vote on a bond measure that will cost residents hundreds of millions of dollars.
Government officials should be transparent in their operations, and should communicate government business to the public. But the February 13 presentation went well beyond that sort of educational outreach and seemed candidly to endorse political advocacy.
The district’s presentation laid out what it called a “bond exploration timeline” that highlighted key checkpoints along the road to voter approval. It included “building a consensus” and undergoing an “advocacy campaign.”
In the “next steps and decision points” section, SAUSD picked specific dates it said are crucial in passing the bond measure. Notable markers in this part of the presentation include sending out voter opinion surveys in April/May, drafting bond measure documents in June, and establishing a Citizen Bond Oversight Committee in November/December, following the presumed electoral success.
This presentation is strikingly similar to one TBWB Strategies delivered during an April 10 board meeting. TBWB, a communications consulting firm specializing in school bonds, is under contract with the district.
The first slide of TBWB’s presentation reads “Planning for a Successful Bond Measure.” The very next slide is a November 2018 bond timeline with checkpoints that are remarkably similar to those on the district’s February presentation.
Though state law bars officials from running political campaigns, SAUSD hired TBWB, and TBWB doesn’t hide its goal of winning elections. The firm brags they “win about 9 out of 10 school bond measures.”
TBWB did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
TBWB is apparently aware of the blurry line between educational efforts and advocacy. Speaking at the district’s April 10 board meeting, TBWB partner Charles Heath called on community members to step forward to support or oppose the bond.
“By law no public resources, no school district resources… can be used to advocate for the passage of the measure,” he said. “So that’s the point at which the school district steps back and community members need to step forward to either advocate for or against the planned measure.”
Community members will certainly step up and let their voices be heard about the bond measure. But one has to wonder: will the district step back?
Kelly McGee is a Rhodes College (Memphis) graduate, and a summer journalism intern at the California Policy Center.