By Jon Cassidy /Watchdog.org November 4, 2016
PEARLAND – Twice now, Pearland residents opposed to a $220 million school bond have gone to high school football games to display a sign in the parking lot. And twice now, school district officials have kicked them out, while allowing the district’s own pro-bond “information table” to remain next to the entrance.
Suzette Griffin is one of the activists who has been driving a truck pulling an anti-bond sign around town.
“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t connect these bonds with their property taxes,” she said.
Griffin and other members of Thriving Pearland, an anti-bond committee, have taken the sign to The Rig, Pearland High School’s football stadium, the last two Friday nights.
The first time, the district’s public information officer came with a police officer to tell her group to leave.
“You are not allowed to have political signs on district property without prior approval from the district,” district spokeswoman Kim Hocott is said to have told them.
Thriving Pearland responded with a cease-and-desist letter from attorneys Briscoe Cain and Keith Strahan, both conservative political figures. Cain will join the Legislature next year; Strahan lost a primary this year.
When Griffin went back to The Rig on Oct. 28, the district’s general counsel was there to tell her to leave, she said.
Griffin said the attorney told her that the district had checked with the Texas Ethics Commission, and that they were forbidden from allowing advertising at district expense.
“If you get a ruling from the TEC, we’ll comply with it,” Griffin said the lawyer told her.
Pearland ISD is correct that state law forbids the school district from using public resources for electioneering, the resource in this case being the property. However, there’s no prohibition on electioneering on public lands, and the TEC’s own opinions cite permissible examples such as a political committee adopting a public park.
But the district’s argument is undermined by its own flouting of the law in question, sending out literature advocating the bond.
On Oct. 27, the district communications office published a one-page document titled “2016 Bond: Fact vs. Fiction,” meant as a rebuttal to arguments made by Thriving Pearland.
Somebody at Pearland ISD realized how problematic the one-pager was, because the district pulled it from its website, but not before Watchdog downloaded a copy. (The district’s tweet linking to the page is still up, although its “Fact vs. Fiction” Facebook post has been edited to direct readers to the district’s subtler advocacy.)
Under state law, an “independent school district may not use state or local funds or other resources of the district to electioneer for or against any candidate, measure, or political party.”
Yet Pearland ISD decided to advocate on behalf of the bond by rebutting specific arguments that Thriving Pearland made against it.
Thriving Pearland makes several points on its website, including:
- “With over 25,000 homes in the district, your family's share is over $20,000.
- Luxury items like locker room additions, a new gym, and tennis courts are in the bond.”
The Pearland ISD release disputes the “luxury” characterization, and insists that new locker rooms and fine arts areas are meant to “accommodate overcrowding” and “substantial increased enrollment.”
Actually, the district projects slow growth of a half-percent annually for the next decade, and according to its most recent bond documents, only two of its schools are operating at capacity.
Pearland ISD also challenged the $20,000 per home figure, arguing that it’s wrong because “the 10 largest property taxpayers in Pearland ISD are companies, not homeowners.” Also, “(b)ecause there are over 5,300 senior homeowners and others in Brazoria County whose taxes are frozen by their homestead exemption, approximately one-fourth of the district’s taxpayers will not be affected by passage of the bond.”
That’s not a very good argument, for the simple reason that those two factors roughly cancel each other. The district’s tax base is 73 percent residential, but if only 80 percent of households will pay the increased taxes, then the committee’s figures are in the right ballpark.
However, the quality of the argument is beside the point; it’s illegal for the district to be arguing its case in the first place.
Strahan and Cain object not just to the flagrantly argumentative “Fact v. Fiction” one-pager, but to all of the “informational” posters displayed at campuses throughout the district.
The attorneys say that for those posters not to violate the prohibition on advocacy, they would need to include some of the negatives about the bond, such as total district debt reaching $530 million, which would move Pearland from middle of the pack to the bottom of large-district, per capita rankings.
The attorneys are threatening to sue to overturn the results of a successful bond election if the district does not comply.
The district could also face civil liability for trampling on the free speech rights of protestors. One doesn’t generally need to write a state commission to get permission to speak out on an issue.
A court’s decision would likely depend on whether the football stadium should be considered a “public forum.”
Not all public land is a forum for free speech. One key Supreme Court case held that a group of Hare Krishnas had no right to mob a convention center that had been rented out simply because it was public property.
Another key Supreme Court case held that the public forum rule “applies where a government property or program is capable of accommodating a large number of public speakers without defeating the essential function of the land or program.”
Parks and city streets are considered classic examples of public forums.
Even if a court were to decide that a stadium parking lot was a “nonpublic forum,” the speech restrictions would be constitutional only if they “are reasonable and are not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker's views.”
Griffin said the group is thinking of heading right back to The Rig this Friday night.