Guilford County accused of illegal electioneering in favor of school bond referendum, sales tax hike
A candidate for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has accused the county government of using public dollars to illegally promote the passage of a $1.7 billion school bond and quarter cent sales tax increase.
The referendums are on the ballot for the May 17 primary. Early voting is already underway.
“Guilford County is expending taxpayer funds and other government resources to promote a viewpoint favoring the passage of both referendum,” wrote attorney Charles Winfree in a letter to the Guilford County Board of Elections.
Winfree wrote the letter on behalf of Alan Branson, the Republican candidate for county commission. The letter requests an investigation by the Guilford County Board of Elections, the State Board of Elections, the County Attorney, the State Treasurer, and the State Auditor.
By law, county governments are permitted to use taxpayer funds to conduct educational campaigns surrounding ballot referendums. But governments are strictly prohibited from actively promoting the passage of those referendum. That sets up a fine line between education and advocacy that counties often appear to cross.
The letter from Winfree cites a number of examples of the county allegedly engaging in electioneering activities, including instances where school principals held mandatory meetings to direct teachers and staff on how to promote the referendums.
The county’s main website “directs you to ‘information’ about the upcoming school bond,” Winfree wrote. “This link presents the viewer with an entirely unbalanced discussion of the bond, accentuating the needs and downplaying the cost of the bond. There is no discussion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the County will be obligated to pay in interest and other costs associated with the issuance of the bonds.”
Winfree also points to claims on the county’s website that commissioners will lower the property tax rate if the bond and sales-tax increase pass.
“It fails to mention that, because of re-evaluation of all property in Guilford County this year, the tax is going to be reduced regardless of the result of the referendum,” he write. “This omission further demonstrates the unbalanced presentation being made by Guilford County.”
The website promoting the ballot initiatives says that Guilford County Schools have more than $2 billion in facility needs, including more than $800 million in deferred maintenance.
Guilford County voters already okayed a $300 million school bond in 2020. This new referendum would build on that to send even more dollars to schools.
A spokesperson for the county sent a statement to WGHP-TV in Greensboro that read in part, “As a school district, we have a responsibility to inform and educate our parents, staff, and community on issues that impact [our] 70,000 students, and our nearly 10,000 faculty and staff members. We expect building leaders to share relevant information about the school bond with their school communities just as we expect them to share information regarding school nutrition programs, Title I programming, the U.S. census, school transportation, college and dual enrollment opportunities, and other pertinent issues that impact our children.”
Reached by phone for comment, Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell told Carolina Journal, “As the state treasurer, as the chair of the Local Government Commission, I’m always in favor of voter-approved debt. I’m always against violating ethics laws regarding using money for promotion when it’s not allowed by law.”