Anti-levy group: school-produced video crosses legal line

A video produced by Vandalia-Butler City Schools in advance of Tuesday’s levy vote has members of an anti-levy group questioning whether it pushes the envelope on laws prohibiting the use of tax money on political campaign materials.

The video, entitled “The Future of Our Community,” was posted to the school district’s YouTube account on Oct. 18. It’s about five minutes long and stars school staff and students who discuss the importance of public schools and the financial difficulties the district faces. The school district spent $7,500 in September to hire a Columbus firm to make the video and two other shorter ones.

The video twice mentions a current 6.99-mill levy request — about halfway through, when Superintendent Christy Donnelly talks about cuts that would take place if the levy doesn’t pass, and those which have taken place already. Voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether or not to approve that levy, which would fund school operations and permanent improvements and prevent a projected $8 million deficit by the end of 2014, according to school officials.

Rene Oberer, a school district resident and spokeswoman for anti-levy group Vandalia-Butler Homeowners for Fair Taxation, said the video strongly resembles a political advertisement. It features a piano musical backdrop and stylish camera work.

“We all know what they’re trying to do, and they’re using our tax dollars to do it,” Oberer said.

The school district officials counter that the video is not a political ad — it’s a promotional video.

“The intent is that it’s not a campaign video, but it’s about a challenge we are facing,” said Bethany Reiff, the school district’s public relations coordinator.

That distinction isn’t just semantics. It’s important because Ohio law prohibits schools and other public agencies from spending tax money on promoting a ballot issue. Ohio legislators last summer made breaking the law a first-degree misdemeanor. The change was inspired by a 2011 state audit that found the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority illegally lent $66,885 to a levy campaign.

So while promoting a levy with tax dollars is illegal, schools and other government agencies are allowed to produce factual information about the impact of a levy’s passage or failure, even if it potentially could influence an election.

“Obviously, there’s a fine line there,” said Bill Owen, the top attorney for the Ohio Auditor’s Office.

The Ohio School Board Association publishes a legal fact sheet to help school districts distinguish between informing and promoting. According to the fact sheet, schools are allowed to spend tax money on levy-related material “as long as the purpose behind the communciation is to provide information about the school district and not to sway the recipient of the communication.”

The school district’s caption on YouTube says the video offers viewers a chance to learn how Vandalia-Butler schools allow students to “broaden their horizons and why support is so vital to the success of not just the district, but the future of our entire community.”

On the other hand, the company that made the video describes it as the “most convincing” of a series of videos it made this year to help school levy campaigns.

“We didn’t want to simply tell people to ‘vote’. We want them to be convinced that supporting each one of the schools we worked with was the right decision for the local voters,” reads an Oct. 20 blog post published on OnScene Promotions’ website.

The company added a disclaimer to the post after the Dayton Daily News asked school officials this week about its contents.

“The above case study represents the viewpoint of the project from OnScene Productions and does not represent the intent of Vandalia-Butler City Schools or the Vandalia-Butler Levy Campaign,” the disclaimer reads.

Phillip Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission, said he fields complaints from the public “all the time” from people concerned about the use of public money on informational materials during levy season. He said he’s never heard anyone complain about a video, though.

While it doesn’t fall under his agency’s jurisdiction, Richter said the issue of taxpayers funding informational materials during levy season raises a “valid public policy question.”

“(Schools) are given certain funds to use to educate students, and if questions are raised concerning how they’re being used, to me it’s at least a valid question to ask how appropriate it is to use those funds to potentially influence an election,” Richter said.

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