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Albemarle bond referendum comes with rules about education, advocacy
Noah Zeidman | Monday, July 04, 2016 at 4:47 p.m.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt a resolution Wednesday asking the circuit court to permit a special election in November for a bond referendum. On the table will be a $35 million general obligation bond for school improvement and expansion projects.

The county’s last bond referendum took place March 19, 1974, to finance the construction of Western Albemarle High School in Crozet. Announced at the end of January, the referendum drew supportive letters to the editor of The Daily Progress and passed by an almost 2-to-1 margin.

An article in the newspaper the following day described the 19 percent voter turnout as “skimpy” with 2,144 in favor and 1,175 opposed. Forty-two years later, the current bond referendum is proposed to coincide with the U.S. presidential election.

“Historically, Albemarle County has chosen to use bonding financing mechanisms that do not require voter approval,” said Dean Tistadt, Albemarle County Public Schools chief operating officer. “If a locality wants to be able to use general obligation bonds, such bonds can only be used if approved by voters. Because they carry the full faith and credit [of the issuing entity], such bonds typically sell at lower interest rates than do revenue or other types of bonds.”

The mandate for voter approval of certain bonds, including general obligation bonds, comes from Article VII, Section 10 of the Constitution of Virginia and § 15.2-2638 of the Code of Virginia. The code states that “no county has the power to contract any debt or to issue its bonds unless a majority of the voters of the county voting on the question at an election … approve contracting the debt, borrowing the money and issuing the bonds.” A list of exceptions follows, none of which applies to general obligation bonds.

Tistadt said the county is considering the referendum to gauge public support for the proposed projects and obtain the lower interest rate, reducing the cost of repayment.

Though the referendum is technically requested by the Board of Supervisors and impacts county schools, county officials and local government employees cannot officially advocate for or against it.

“The board members, supervisors, planning commissioners, anybody that’s considered a public official, can educate the public about what’s in a referendum,” said Gary Grant, a former Albemarle School Board member who has been following the issue closely.

Grant expressed concern that some language used by supervisors already has sounded more like advocacy than impartial education.

The Free Enterprise Forum’s Neil Williamson has voiced his own concerns about the impartiality of educational efforts that have taken place thus far.

“Fifty percent, or thereabouts, of the bond referendum is for a second story at Woodbrook Elementary. I don’t believe that message is getting out,” Williamson said. “The message that’s getting out is that this bond referendum contains something for every school in the county. Those are both true statements, but in the educational process I’ve seen thus far — and we’re very early in this — [the Woodbrook expansion] hasn’t been hidden but it certainly hasn’t been highlighted.”

A 2003 opinion from Virginia’s then-attorney general lays out the general rule that “local governments have no authority to expend funds on advertising in support of, or in opposition to, a local or statewide referendum question.” The opinion references Code of Virginia § 24.2-687, which permits local governments to distribute a neutral explanation of the referendum question not exceeding 500 words.

The opinion does not include specific guidelines for statements made by individuals. Lee Catlin, assistant county executive for community relations, recently clarified the proper procedure for county officials and staff.

“County staff and elected officials can express a personal opinion regarding the referendum if they specifically identify their statements as personal opinion, and they are not serving in an official county capacity at the time,” Catlin said. “You have to be off the clock and not using county resources if you are acting in any sort of advocacy role.”

For example, a parent might approach a county school teacher about their position on the referendum. That teacher could offer only neutral information unless they were speaking outside of work hours, were not using any county resources like a school email account and clarified that they were only speaking in a personal capacity.

Catlin said the county will work hard to make sure officials and employees follow the rules as the referendum process officially begins.

“It’s very important, and we’ve been working very closely with our county attorney’s office to make sure that those lines are drawn very clearly,” she said. “Once the board takes action on July 6, we will be doing a very significant education effort with everyone to make sure they’re aware of these very important guidelines.”

Tistadt said the county is preparing guidelines to educate voters on the referendum. County Attorney Greg Kamptner declined to comment on specific details until county and school officials have been fully briefed.

Grant asserted that the line between personal and official advocacy can be a risky one, urging those who choose to personally advocate to be very careful when doing so. Both Grant and Williamson were uncertain about systems in place to hold county officials and staff accountable if they do advocate in any official capacity.

“I think it would probably be best to bring [inappropriate advocacy] to the attention of the superintendent of the schools in the case of a school employee, or to the county executive in the case of a county employee,” Catlin said. “We know there’s a lot of enthusiasm about putting a referendum out there. We want to make sure we’re giving everyone the tools they need to know what their role is so we have a really smooth and transparent process.”

 

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