Elections board investigates school bond activities
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
A complaint filed against the Macon County School Board over questionable campaign actions has the school district in hot water with the North Carolina Board of Elections.
The state Board of Elections is investigating whether the district disclosed money raised and spent to support a bond referendum that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, said Amy Strange, a state board of elections campaign finance specialist.
In August, the Macon County school board voted to approve $5,000 towards the marketing of the bond. Flyers, billboards and yard signs were made and started popping up throughout town, with the phrase “vote yes for children.”
When the school district placed the word “yes” in its informational material about the school bond, school officials crossed the line. Spending public money to sway the voters on how to vote for the bond upset a resident who filed a complaint with the Macon County Board of Elections.
Macon County Elections Supervisor Kim Bishop said she turned the complaint over to the state once she received it. Strange has been investigating the Macon case but was unable to disclose any information. If the school district is found guilty, there are several civil penalties that could be applied.
Strange was unable to state what type of pentalties the Macon School Board could be facing, but she was able to speak in general terms about similar cases. If the school board is found to have violated election laws and it’s a first offense, “generally speaking, the first penalty is waived,” she said.
According to Strange, many organizations or groups are not aware of the campaign finance requirements.
“A number of candidates or groups are not aware that they have to file a campaign finance report,” she said.
Citizens for Better Schools
When notified that its actions probably violated state law, bond supporters formed a political action group on Oct. 9 called Citizens for Better Schools. According to campaign officials, the group should have been formed prior to the spending of any money to support the referendum.
Since the beginning of September, the school district has been hosting public forums to educate residents about the bond. During part of this time the school district was handing out material that advocated for the bond instead of just providing information.
This advocacy has caused the board’s actions to be a target of strict scrutiny.
Administrative officials and school board members have taken responsibility for the error.
“At first I was taken back as this was news to me as I have participated in three school bond campaigns and never had a formal complaint filed against me or the Board of Education for attempting to generate support to build schools,” Superintendent Daniel Brigman wrote in a statement given to The Smoky Mountain News.
Macon County School Board member Roberta Swank said the board is taking responsibility for its error.
“We made a mistake,” she said. “We were telling people how to vote.”
Swank hopes that the board’s oversight will not jeopardize the bond. “All citizens see the need for a new school and this is a wise decision.”
Brigman is also concerned that the negative publicity surrounding the school system’s support of the bond could affect public perception.
“Some people may not have all the information and solely rely on the information that was in the paper,” Brigman said. “My hope is that the voters do not focus on this one issue and focus on the entire outcome and ensuring our children with a new facility.”
If voters do reject the bond, Brigman said county commissioners are aware of the school system’s needs.
“Our needs are not going to go away,” he said. “These projects must be constructed.”
If the bond referendum is approved, it allows the county to borrow money at a better interest rate and therefore save money. If the commissioners simply have to get a loan without voter support, paying for the schools will cost taxpayers more.
On Nov. 6, Macon County voters will determine if a $42.1 million school construction project will come to fruition.
If passed, the money will build a new kindergarten to fourth-grade school and a new fifth- and sixth-grade school.
The new schools will lead to a re-drawing of district boundaries that will affect many families in Macon County.
Students who attend Iotla Elementary, a kindergarten to second-grade school, and Cowee Elementary School, a third- to fifth-grade school, will be pulled together in the 650-student North Macon Elementary School. This school will be built at the Iotla school site, which is located along Iotla Church Road north of the county’s airport.
Some students from East Franklin, Cartoogechaye and South Macon elementary schools will relocate to schools in the Franklin area.
Fifth- and sixth-graders at Macon Middle School will attend the new school built along Clarks Chapel Road in Franklin.
“We are excited about this plan,” Brigman said. “This plan is developed around the students.”
The building plan was developed after the middle school reached its capacity. School officials have been ironing out the specifics since November 2006.
The two new schools will allow the district to prepare for growth. In recent years the Macon County School District has had an influx of 60 to 80 students a year, according to Brigman.