My Jan. 27 column entitled “Bossier Parish School Board and Property Taxes” questioned the Bossier Parish School Board’s two new 10-year tax millages that will be on the April 21 ballot, citing both demographic studies by Elliott Stonecipher and the alternative BEEF proposal by Bossier columnist Marty Carlson as two of the reasons for close study by Bossier voters.
The school board has issued a barrage of releases favoring the proposal, and the media blitz has now crossed over into efforts that violate the Louisiana Constitution. Perhaps not coincidentally, the BPSB Central Office has pumped up its internal P.R. machine by the recent hiring of former KTBS Channel 3’s Sonja Bailes. Seemingly, a good education system now needs more than word of mouth and Chamber of Commerce cheerleaders to get the word out how great the Bossier public education is, or at least perceived to be.
The official Web site of the Bossier Parish School Board, along with the Web sites of most Bossier Parish schools, has a lead article, “Grow with us.” This column exhorts its readers to “Grow with us. Evolve with us. Invest in us.” And in a plain-talking approach, the column urges readers to “Pledge your support for Bossier schools by not only voting “yes” on April 21, but by also helping us spread the word that this referendum is critical.” Its not a surprise that most of the Web sites of the Bossier schools the exact same message on their home pages.
The Louisiana Constitution prohibits the utilization of public funds to influence voters in elections, specifically Article XI, Section 4, which states, “No public funds shall be used to urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition, or be appropriated to a candidate or political organization. This provision shall not prohibit the use of public funds for dissemination of factual information relative to a proposition appearing on an election ballot.”
The Louisiana Attorney General has issued an opinion stating that public funds may be used to disseminate factual, unbiased information about government programs and projects; the opinion further opines that public funds may not be used for mailings that urge the electorate to vote for a proposition. (Op. Atty. Gen. No. 04-0370, Jan. 21, 2005).
In today’s “techno” world, an official Web site is, for all practical purposes, a publication, and one can hardly doubt that the Attorney General would prohibit a Web site paid for with public dollars that urges voters on a bond issue. Clearly, the Web sites and other direct appeals for “yes” votes by Bossier school officials is prohibited by the Louisiana Constitution.
Although no tax opposition group has yet been formed (at least to this writer’s knowledge), it is early, and litigation may be filed to stay the new millage proposal on the basis of the constitution violations. Bossier officials generally are not concerned with the spirit of laws, much less the “letter” of the law. In this instance, a review of public relation efforts by the Bossier Parish School Board for this local proposal deserve close scrutiny.