This week, thousands of Miami-Dade public school students took home fliers about the $1.2 billion bond referendum on the November ballot.
On one side was printed a bond briefing, including its goals and impact on taxpayers. On the other side, a list of needs at their particular school.
The fliers—along with messages about the bond blazoned on school marquees—highlight the fine line governments must walk in campaigns: to provide information, but not advocate for referendums or candidates.
A political science professor and district officials say the recent information doesn’t cross that line.
At least one teacher disagrees, saying the fliers violate state law and Miami-Dade School Board policy prohibiting employees from engaging in political activity or using resources for political ads.
On Nov. 6, residents will vote on the bond referendum, which seeks to renovate crumbling schools and improve classroom technology. Taxpayers would pay for the improvements with property taxes (up to $35 for every $100,000 of assessed value) over 30 years.
Shawn Beightol, who was once charged with engaging in political activity at school and put on administrative leave, said the fliers amount to electioneering and use school resources, including scarce copy paper. He has filed complaints with the state’s Attorney General and the county’s Inspector General. Beightol said he recognizes the inequity in schools and the need for more resources, but that the fliers don’t provide all the pros and cons.
Sean Foreman, who teaches political science at Barry University, said there is a “gray area.”
“As long as they’re not telling people how to vote, they’re on the safe side in advocating and promoting the issue,” Foreman said. “I think you can even promote through the use of facts, as long as you’re not telling people, ‘Vote for this.’”
John Schuster, spokesman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said that anything sent home with students has been vetted by different sources, including lawyers.
The YMCA, which has endorsed the bond issue, also gave students literature on it. Schuster said the YMCA fliers was printed on their own letterhead. “We wanted to delineate that so that the schools would not be faulted for advocacy,” Schuster said. “Our mission is to educate and not advocate.”
School Board member Carlos Curbelo, who first voted against seeking the bond and later voted to put it before voters, said as long as it’s not advocacy, it’s fine. “There has to be a line somewhere. I’m sure people will disagree where you draw it,” he said.
The official advocacy role falls to a political action committee, Building For Tomorrow. The group has employed several veterans of Carlos Gimenez’s successful mayor campaign. It has raised just over $664,000 in contributions; financed advertising in local media, including spots on Spanish-language radio; and organized events and town hall forums.
The donations include big checks from local and out-of-state companies, both private and publicly traded:
* $50,000 from Coastal Construction in Miami
* $31,000 from Jacobs Engineering, a publicly traded construction firm based in Pasadena, Calif.
* $30,000 from Ohana Solutions, also in California, which provides outsourcing and technical support services
* $25,000 from Coral Gables-based Codina Management
* $10,000 from five Braman auto dealerships
* $5,000 from the Miami Heat.