Was it a campaign ad or just a public service announcement?
That's the question regarding a commercial urging a yes vote in the upcoming Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 tax referendum. The spot had been running on RBTV, the high school's television station, until Thursday when Interim Superintendent David Bonnette pulled the plug on the spot.
On Friday, after consulting with the school district's attorney Bonnette decided that the spot would be permanently taken down from RBTV.
"We are not going to run that any longer," Bonnette said Friday. "In talking with the school district's attorney, while there isn't necessarily any legal violation here, his advice to me was just not to proceed down that path and just to err on the side of caution here and just to not air those kinds of public service announcements."
Bonnette told Gary Prokes the supervisor of RBTV, to take down the ad on March 3, one day after former school board candidate Chris Robling questioned the legality and the propriety of the RBTV spot at a forum about the referendum and one day after the Landmark first began asking questions about the spot.
The spot, which ran as frequently as four times an hour for the last couple of weeks, urged voters to vote yes in the April 5 referendum.
State law, the Election Interference Prohibition Act, bars the expenditure of public funds to advocate for votes for or against a referendum. Schools are allowed to use public money and school resources to provide factual information about issues involved in a referendum, but cannot urge a yes or no vote, according to a paper put out by a committee of the Illinois Council of School Attorneys which is posted on the Illinois Association of School Boards website. Violation of the law is a Class B misdemeanor for first time offenders and Class A misdemeanor for repeat offenders.
The 30-second spot consisted of music, simple print graphics and a voiceover narration by Prokes with the image of an American flag waving in the background. It urges viewers to follow the vote yes campaign on Facebook and Twitter and repeats a slogan of the vote yes campaign "Education pays everyone back."
The ad closed by urging voters to "Vote Yes on April 5."
At end there is a graphic indicating that the spot was sponsored by CURB, which is the abbreviation of Communities United for RBHS District 208, the campaign group formed to advocate for approval of the referendum.
Prokes said that he and a part-time RBTV employee who also volunteers time at RBTV created the spot in the RBTV offices. CURB did not pay RBTV to run the spot, and RBTV does not accept paid advertising Prokes said.
David Morrison, the deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based, good-government group that typically focuses on state issues, said that he believes the spot violated state law.
"It's the use of public funds to support a ballot question, that's what makes it illegal," said Morrison, a Riverside resident who says he hasn't taken a position for or against the referendum. "It satisfies the magic words test. They're saying support, vote for. That's what public bodies can't do. If they produced the ad that's a violation. Broadcasting it for free would also be a violation."
Would RBTV have produced and run a spot advocating a no vote on the referendum?
"Yes, of course," said Tim Scanlon, RB's assistant principal of curriculum and instruction, who was the intermediary between CURB and RBTV.
Scanlon said that CURB is a registered non-profit organization and said that RBTV runs many ads for non-profit groups.
"We didn't run an ad, we ran a public service announcement like we have and will do in the future for other public community organizations," Scanlon said. "That's been our practice. And I didn't talk to any attorneys."
Scanlon disputed the notion that the spot amounted to using school resources to advocate for a yes vote.
"I believe it's using school resources to provide a service to a community organization, and we would provide the same service to any registered organization in the community," Scanlon said.
Prokes said that Tim Scanlon came to him about making and running the spot.
"Tim asked if RBTV could produce the spot," Prokes wrote in an e-mailed response to a question from the Landmark.
Scanlon, who says that he is a member of CURB, said that the idea for the spot came at a Saturday meeting a few weeks ago with the leaders of CURB.
"At one of our Saturday meetings, the citizens group asked what we could do for publicity. Someone in the meeting, there were about 20 people there, talked about public service announcements, and I said I would be glad to ask RBTV," Scanlon said.
Scanlon said that he told Prokes that the RB administration had approved RBTV making and running a Vote Yes spot.
"Gary said if it's approved by administration, it's approved by administration," Scanlon said.
Scanlon said that decision to run a spot for CURB was made at a meeting of RB's administrative leadership team, including Bonnette, RB Principal Pam Bylsma, Business Manager Chris Whelton and Assistant Principal John Passarella.
Bylsma refused to discuss the issue on Friday, saying that Bonnette told her not to talk about it, because Bonnette had already discussed the issue with the Landmark.
After initially saying he knew nothing about the spot until Wednesday night, Bonnette later, after the Landmark had talked to Scanlon, said that he did indeed participate in the decision to run the spot.
He said he had not actually seen the spot until after hearing about it at the Wednesday evening referendum forum. Bonnette did not return a call from the Landmark on Monday asking for clarification of his role in the decision to air a spot for CURB.