The Travis County Taxpayers Union on Friday asked for a criminal investigation of Austin school district employees, alleging they have violated the Election Code by using public resources to lobby voters to support a $1.1 billion bond package.
The group is asking County Attorney David Escamilla to investigate communications the district sent to parents of students. Early voting is underway; Election Day is Nov. 7.
Members of the taxpayer group, including its attorney, Roger Borgelt, held a press conference on Friday morning, then filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.
The group says flyers, stickers, letters and emails sent to parents did not contain a disclaimer required by Texas election law, and that the materials amount to illegal lobbying by the district. Borgelt also alleged that the district has used public funds and resources to advocate for the bond.
“We believe it’s criminally unethical, and we believe the law supports us on this,” Borgelt said, standing outside the Texas Ethics Commission’s offices in Austin. “To use teachers and students to basically disperse pro-bond materials and electioneering in favor of the bond … employees of the Austin Independent School District are not supposed to be doing this. We have at least four different instances of where we believe there has been violation of the election code related to the lack of disclosure, related to the use of public funds and resources, including the AISD internal email system to distribute pro-bond materials.”
Under state law, districts are allowed to circulate factual information about bond elections, but cannot use public resources for political advocacy. The school district’s attorneys say employees have not crossed that line.
“While we have not yet seen the complaint, the Austin Independent School District believes that an educated voter is the best voter and only provides factual information relating to the bond election,” said Ylise Janssen, general counsel for the school district. “The district’s hope is that the public will utilize the information when making an informed decision at the ballot box.”
One of the flyers in question was sent home with Davis Elementary students last month. The flyer included a sentence that inaccurately stated the bond would lead to “no additional taxes.” It had been prepared by a couple of parents and did not go through the approval process, as it should have, before it was sent home with students, according to a school email.
Davis parent Daphne Hoffacker, who helped create the flyer with another mom, said they meant to fix the error. The flyer was supposed to say the bond would not raise the district’s “tax rate,” which is consistent with the district’s statements about the bond. The principal on Oct. 19 in a follow-up letter to parents clarified the flyer did not go through the normal approval process, corrected the mistake and directed parents to a bond page on the district’s website for further information.
“We’re just a couple of moms trying to make a difference,” said Hoffacker, who apologized to the school.
On Friday, Mykle Tomlinson, campaign manager for the pro-bond political action committee, the Committee for Austin’s Children, said stickers created by the PAC were not advocacy and were handed out by parents at Casis Elementary to other parents as they drove up to the student pickup line. The stickers were not distributed on school property, he said.
The taxpayer’s union has clashed before with the district over bond elections.
In 2013, $490 million in voter-approved bond projects were stalled for eight months after the taxpayers’ union, led by former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, filed a lawsuit alleging the district failed to specify on the ballot how the propositions would affect the tax rate. The group dropped the lawsuit after the district made a motion to recover damages if it prevailed in court.
“This is something Zimmerman does every time,” Tomlinson said. “He tries to sow a seed of dissent, then he either drops the lawsuit or nothing comes of it.”
Zimmerman or his political action committee also has sued the city (including twice while he was on the council) and Travis County’s hospital district.
Earlier this year, the taxpayers’ group unsuccessfully attempted to stop the demolition of Brown Elementary, alleging the structural damages that prompted the sudden closure of the school were exaggerated. The district moved forward with the demolition of the campus earlier this month.