Texas Ethics Commission Says Border School District Violated Election Law

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As concerns over potential electioneering and other election code violations hover over the upcoming state March primary, the Texas Ethics Commission recently found “credible evidence” that the superintendent of a border school district violated the state election code by authorizing the spending of public funds to produce a newsletter that contained political advertising.

In 2015, a concerned citizen lodged a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission asserting that El Paso Ysleta Independent School District Superintendent Xavier De La Torre and former school board president Patricia Torres-McLean violated the law. Both stood accused of using taxpayer dollars to publish a “special newsletter” in October that advocated for the approval of a $430.5 million bond and the passage of Proposition 1, the Texas Homestead Exemption for School District Property Taxes Amendment, in a November election.

“The complaint alleged that the respondent, as an officer or employee of a political subdivision, “authorized the spending of public funds for political advertising,” stated the commission’s Order and Agreed Resolution issued on December 29, 2017.

The Texas Election Code defines “political advertising” as a communication that supports or opposes a candidate and/or measure and intends to influence the outcome of an election through the use of spoken and/or written statements made via means including television and radio, email messages, posters, newspapers, newsletters, fliers, pamphlets, billboards, and periodicals.

An officer or employee of a political subdivision (i.e., a school district) cannot spend public funds for political advertising. The code, however, exempts communications that factually describe the purposes of a measure if the communications do not advocate passage or defeat of a measure, according to the order.

The commission detailed the newsletter contained “descriptions of the bond measure and a letter” signed by De La Torre and Torres-McLean. The first page displayed early voting dates, a picture of students in a classroom, and the statement: “YISD seeks community support for the proposed bond.”

The De La Torres letter, “Greetings from YISD,” mentioned “general goals to improve the school district” followed by “discussion” on the school district’s facilities master plan and the “bond measure to fund it.” Then, it referred to Proposition 1, telling voters bond’s passage would reduce Ysleta school taxpayers’ overall tax burden based on homestead exemptions, according to the order.

“If voters approve both Proposition 1 and our bond, many homeowners would not only see a decrease in their annual YISD tax bills, but they will have given our district the money it needs to significantly improve, modernize and rebuild schools,” stated the letter. It thanked community taxpayers for their “dedication, loyalty, and support of our schools.”

A “Greetings from the Board President” letter from Torres-McLean addressed the “need for the construction projects that will be funded by the bond measure.” A separate commission order noted she wrote, “[O]ur facilities needs are so great that we just don’t have the money to do it on our own. This is why the Board of Trustees approved a $451.5 million bond proposal for the May 9 election.”

The last page questioned if the school bond was really needed in a “frequently asked question” section. The answer read, “Ysleta ISD is 100 years old — and many of our schools have deteriorated to the point where they must be repaired, rebuilt, or modernized. School bonds are used as a primary source for school districts to help pay for costly facilities projects.”

On November 9, 2015, Ysleta ISD voters approved the school bond measure and Proposition 1.

The Texas Ethic Commission concluded that the two Yselta ISD officials violated the election code by going “beyond factually describing the measure” in their letters and advocated for its passage.

The commission highlighted that Torres-McLean’s letter was “structured as a persuasive essay.” It included her personal preference for the measure to pass and a “call to action,” something the commission warns against in its pamphlet on paid political advertising by political subdivisions. Likewise, De La Torre ended his letter thanking “readers for their dedication, loyalty, and support” after detailing the school bond proposal. The commission called this “show you are about education” call to action language.

The Texas Ethics Commission also objected to “obvious implications” made in the newsletter by “tying” the school bond measure to the “unrelated homestead exemption measure,” suggesting “voters should approve both measures and get the best of both worlds: better schools, lower taxes.”

De La Torre denied the allegations, arguing the newsletter contained factual statements and did not advocate for the passage or defeat of the measure. Still, on December 22, 2017, the commission fined the superintendent and Torres-McLean each a $500 civil penalty. He told the El Paso Times he did not agree with the commission’s ruling but agreed to pay both fines, a total of $1,000, to avoid using taxpayer dollars to litigate the case in Austin.

“There’s no admittance of guilt,” said De La Torre. “None of it was, in my opinion, remotely close to trying to influence voters or use taxpayer money for any kind of a bond campaign.”

Ysleta ISD backed the superintendent by approving a December 13 resolution in which De La Torre “neither admits nor denies” the commissions findings. Instead, Ysleta ISD consented to the order “solely for the purpose of resolving this sworn complaint.”

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