Republican lawmaker takes aim at public schools

Katie Campbell//December 26, 2018

Republican lawmaker takes aim at public schools

Katie Campbell//December 26, 2018

Rep. Kelly Townsend
Rep. Kelly Townsend

Rep. Kelly Townsend wants school district employees and board members investigated at the whim of any legislator who questions the legality of their policies. And she wants the Attorney General’s Office to do the job despite the strain already imposed on the office by existing law.

The Mesa Republican’s proposal in House Bill 2018 would expand a 2016 law that allows any state legislator to ask the attorney general to investigate an ordinance, regulation, order or other action taken by a municipality or county to determine whether it is in compliance with state law.

The bill would require the attorney general to investigate any policy, procedure or other official action taken by a school district governing board or any school district employee that lawmakers allege violates state law. If investigators find the law has been broken, the superintendent of public instruction would be directed to withhold up to $5,000 per violation from offending districts’ state funding.

The existing law, passed as SB1487, requires that the investigation be completed within 30 days of a legislator’s request, a timeframe Townsend has adopted in HB2018. And that may spell hardship for investigators.

According to the attorney general’s tally, the office has received 11 complaints, all by Republican lawmakers, since SB1487 was enacted. At an estimated 100 hours per investigation, that’s months of man hours.

AG spokesman Ryan Anderson said the 30-day timeline is not effective. He said it puts an incredible strain on everyone involved, including the subjects of complaints, and expanding the statute to another level of government will only exacerbate the problem.

“To expand that statute to every [district] employee, thousands of employees, I just don’t see a way,” he said.

But Townsend said SB1487 must be extended to school districts because laws have been broken without consequence for years.

“The things that are happening at the school level have been overlooked for long enough that people are offended that we’re asking them to abide by the law,” she said.

A state law already forbids the use of public school resources to influence elections and allows violators to be penalized.

But Townsend said the law has no teeth and may not be enough for some officials to take action. She said Attorney General Mark Brnovich won’t hold that office forever, and those who come after him may think they have bigger fish to fry than district employees potentially using school resources to influence elections.

“We as legislators, at least Kelly Townsend, think that this is a big enough fish to take care of,” she said. “Our election process has to be pure.”

Anderson said the Attorney General’s Office would continue to meet legislators’ expectations – expansion or not. Still, any expansion of powers under SB1487 would have to come with corresponding increases in staff resources, he said. The office did receive additional funds for the unit investigating claims last year, but he said that only covered the office’s needs to enforce the law as it currently stands.

For the sake of the election process, Townsend saw no problem with that.

“I am willing and will support whatever it takes to get to that place where our voters can be confident that the process is protected,” she said. “And if that means more money, then by all means, put that money there.”

But even with more available dollars, Anderson said the Attorney General’s Office has argued the current law could be fine-tuned, including to provide flexibility in terms of the timeline.

“The last thing that our office wants to do is just half-ass an investigation and say we didn’t have enough time to come to a conclusion,” he said. “That’s not justice.”

The “drop everything” timeline is tough enough for the Attorney General’s Office to keep up with let alone small municipalities trying to fulfill the office’s requests, he said.

Phoenix and Tucson may have resources readily available to give investigators what they need, but places like Bisbee and Snowflake, both of which have been investigated under SB1487, may not.

And there is one significant difference between SB1487 and Townsend’s HB2018.

SB1487 gives municipalities and counties found to have broken the law 30 days to resolve the issue. Take Bisbee, for example. The Attorney General’s Office determined in 2017 that its plastic bag ban ordinance was illegal as it conflicted with state law. Rather than appeal the decision, the Bisbee City Council voted to suspend the ordinance and draft a new version making it voluntary for retailers. It was either that or lose nearly $2 million in revenue from the state.

Townsend’s bill does not include a grace period for school districts to take corrective action.

She said that’s because the damage is already done when it comes to electioneering.

State law already forbids the use of public school resources by employees to influence elections.

In fact, the Phoenix Union High School District recently fined two of its teachers for advocating for the Invest in Education Act at school.

The teachers, not their districts, were held responsible.

Anderson said the current statute says an official action must be taken by a governing body to have a violation of the law. If lawmakers want the statute to apply to every city employee, or every school district employee in this case, they have to change the existing law.

And that’s a decision that should be considered carefully, he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments made by Rep. Kelly Townsend.