Sacramento City Unified School District used robocalls a week ago to contact thousands of parents with “important information” about the benefits of Measure G and statewide Proposition 55 on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The district sent the scripted messages recorded by five district trustees through its automated telephone message distribution system, explaining how the two tax measures would raise money for school programs and services that otherwise could be slashed.
Backers say the messages were fully vetted by lawyers and did not violate a ban on using public resources for campaign purposes. But some tax opponents and an election law expert say that the line between electioneering and information-sharing is very thin.
“I would say I absolutely understand why people feel this is an advocacy piece, why people would feel they’re being urged to vote yes on these measures,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson after listening to one of the robocalls. “Having said that, it does not use the magic words, ‘Vote yes.’ ”
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Measure G is a $75 annual parcel tax designed to generate $7 million annually for Sacramento City Unified schools for six years. Proposition 55 would extend a statewide income tax on top earners to support the state budget, much of which is devoted to education spending.
Sacramento City Unified Trustee Jay Hansen said board members discussed with the district’s lawyer whether robocalls would be appropriate. “We vetted that with our counsel to make sure that it was a proper function for us to help provide our citizens with as much information about the election as possible,” he said.
Raoul Bozio, legal services manager for Sacramento City Unified, said the district is allowed to provide details to voters, citing a section of the state Education Code. “We can be factual on a ballot measure and we can share factual information,” he said. “But you can’t go into the advocacy end of it.”
But David Kline, who has two children in the district and is vice president of communications for the California Taxpayers Association, said Sacramento City Unified crossed the line when it wrote the measure in upbeat terms and then spread the word using a similarly positive spin.
“If you write the ballot language that favors your side, then to use additional tax dollars to campaign for it, it is beyond the pale,” Kline said.
He cited Measure G ballot language, which describes an expansion of “successful programs that provide early intervention and tutoring services” and “support academic and arts enrichment.”
Kline said his organization, California Taxpayers Association, has not taken a position on Measure G. Local opposition comes from a different group, the Sacramento Taxpayers Association.
But the California Taxpayers Association is opposed to Proposition 55.
Kline said that when he saw the incoming call from the school district last Sunday, he expected some kind of routine education-related notification. The district called parents from the same phone number that it uses to inform families of registration deadlines and vaccine requirements.
“So I wasn’t expecting a political call,” he said. “It was very frustrating to know that school resources were being used for a political campaign. (Trustee Jessie Ryan) stopped just short of saying, ‘Please vote yes.’ But under the law these types of calls are considered campaign calls.”
When it’s within a month of an election, that doesn’t pass the smell test.
Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, on challenged robocalls
Levinson said the line between information and advocacy “is incredibly difficult to parse. If the (communication) says, ‘Vote for this measure,’ that’s advocacy. But nobody ever does that.
“Without saying for sure that this is impermissible, if I received this call I would feel like I was being urged to vote yes,” she said. “And that is what the district wants. They want people to vote yes.”
“But that is maybe too apparent, and they are not simply providing information about the measure. I think you could, with a straight face, say they are providing some of the consequences. But in looking at the law, you want to provide all of the consequences.”
The “vote no” argument against Measure G cites the lack of a prioritized list that guarantees specific projects. “The promised citizens’ oversight committee can’t ensure accountability without it,” the opposition wrote.
Levinson said a questionable passage in the robocall script had trustees saying they were “proud to tell” listeners that the school board had endorsed both measures.
“If you’re proud of it, then it means it’s a good idea,” Levinson said. “That to me is the part that is most troubling in terms of crossing the line. The rest (of the call) is positive, but probably not illegally positive.”
Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which opposes Proposition 55, said questionable election practices can be successfully challenged in court. His group does not plan to challenge the Sacramento City Unified measure; it is focused on statewide measures.
If the district is providing a one-sided message, “then they are probably violating the law,” he said. And if the district’s telephone network is being used to tout the benefits of the district’s ballot measure, that is a violation of law.
He said a court would consider the timing of any challenged robocall. “When it’s within a month of an election, that doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
But Bozio said his district is on firm ground and considered the law’s requirements before issuing the calls.
“We’re pretty careful,” he said. “Everything that we reviewed and OK’d is pretty straightforward and factual. We’re pretty conservative in giving the green light.”
School districts across the region have placed parcel taxes and bond measures on the November ballot, banking on the generosity of voters in a high-turnout election. Among the several districts contacted by The Bee, only Sacramento City Unified has issued robocalls to parents.
Davis Joint Unified has a $620 annual parcel tax on the ballot. Spokeswoman Maria Clayton said board members share factual information but “are well aware that they cannot advocate.” In recent months, the district has cited the ballot measure in digital newsletters to parents and has linked to its details and benefits on the district’s website.
Elk Grove Unified placed Measure M on the November ballot. The measure proposes $476 million in bonds to meet the large district’s facilities needs, said spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton. The district has an “informational effort” underway for voters, she said.
At San Juan Unified, voters are being asked to approve Measure P, a $750 million bond measure to repair and upgrade schools. Spokesman Trent Allen said San Juan limits its community outreach to information on the need for the bonds, primarily through web materials, social media posts and presentations to community groups.