Monday, June 04, 2012

TPS should not solicit levy campaign contributions inside the schools

I've been going over the 2010 campaign finance reports for the Toledo Public Schools levy committee, listed as the Committee for Schools and the Committee for Schools PAC on the Board of Elections website. They document the fundraising, donations and expenditures for their last levy vote request.

What I found was that the vendors were the largest contributors - even more than unions - and while many of them won't pay the new property tax they're supporting, they want you to pay more.

I also found that some school board members contribute very little - if any - of their own funds to the effort, despite asking others to give them thousands.

But probably the most interesting thing is the listing of fundraising events that appear to be held inside the schools and/or the school board administration building.

There are over 30 entries for various fundraisers identified as "Human Resources Fundraiser," "Treasurers Division Fundraiser," "Computer Services Fundraiser," and "Communication Fundraiser." There is an Ottawa River Fundraiser (elementary school in Point Place), a Woodward High School Fundraiser (North Toledo), and a Bowsher High School Fundraiser (south Toledo). There are also some breakfasts and luncheons listed.

All of these 'fundraisers' are listed under the campaign finance code of 'SA' which means that they sold items and the money was deposited into the campaign coffers.

Together, these fundraisers raised more than $16,500.

What were they selling? Well, according to the finance reports, they purchased T-Shirts, jerseys and umbrellas, some of which include a description of the purpose as being "for Treasurer Division FR."

The campaign purchased items and then sold them.

Ordinarily, this is nothing to be concerned about as campaigns are allowed to purchase and sell items ... except for that pesky little thing known as the law - specifically the Ohio Revised Code (ORC).

In Ohio, it is illegal to solicit public employees for contributions to campaigns - including levy campaigns for your employer - in the place of business.

ORC 3517.092 says:

(D)(1) No public employee shall solicit a contribution from any person while the public employee is performing the public employee’s official duties or in those areas of a public building where official business is transacted or conducted.

(2) No person shall solicit a contribution from any public employee while the public employee is performing the public employee’s official duties or is in those areas of a public building where official business is transacted or conducted.

The finance reports list the location of the fundraisers and they are all in TPS buildings where business is conducted.

So not only is it illegal to solicit a contribution of a public employee in the public building where they work, the employees themselves cannot solicit a contribution while they are in the public building where official business is conducted.

Just to be clear, that would be the TPS administration building and the various schools.

This would seem to be a clear violation, so I called the Ohio Elections Commission and spoke to an attorney on staff who informed me that soliciting the sale of items may or may not be allowable under the law. You see, the law doesn't specifically address whether or not selling items to raise money for a levy campaign constitutes 'solicitation.'

As far as I could tell, these sales - which TPS clearly identifies as fundraisers - happen only inside the public buildings where official business is transacted or conducted. It is my understanding that the items for sale are offered only to employees - not to the general public. Finally, the money raised through the sale of the items is a direct contribution to the levy campaign.

If this is not 'solicitation' in violation of the ORC, it should be.

Not having seen the inside of the various departments to know how they are conducting these sales and if they clearly advertise the sale as benefiting the levy campaign, I have no idea if the public employees (teachers, administrators, other school staff) are aware of the fact that they are supporting the levy campaign with their purchase.

If it not clearly identified, it would seem to be a bit deceptive on TPS's part. If it is clearly identified as being for the levy system, then it is a solicitation, even if it's just an advertised option for the public employees to participate in at their own choosing.

TPS couldn't put a jar on a table and put a sign over it that says "contribute to the levy campaign" so why would it be okay to put umbrellas or t-shirts on a table and say "buy one to support the levy campaign"?

I believe it is a violation of the spirit of the law, it not the letter, and it should cease.

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