State: Billerica School District’s Email Violated Campaign-finance Laws

January 9, 2018

BILLERICA -- The School Department violated state law by using public resources on a field maintenance ballot question last month, according to the Office of Campaign & Political Finance.

The department used its server and email list to send information about the ballot question to parents of Billerica students. State law does not allow use of taxpayer-paid resources, directly or indirectly, on any political issue.

School Superintendent Tim Piwowar and the school system were not fined for the violation.

On Dec. 19, OCPF Director Michael Sullivan wrote that the School Department used limited resources for this email, and recognized Piwowar’s “prompt acknowledgment of the error and our belief that the guidance provided as the result of this review will ensure future compliance with the campaign finance law...”

″... this office now considers this matter closed,” Sullivan wrote.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Piwowar thanked OCPF for its “prompt attention to the complaint that was raised, and for their support and guidance regarding our letter about the December 2 election.”

“Although I wrote, and the School Committee approved, the letter with the intent of being informational and factual, we discovered after speaking with OCPF that our distribution of this letter via email was a technical violation of their regulations,” Piwowar said in a statement. “We apologize for this error, but are happy that this case is considered closed and commit to ensuring compliance in the future.”

In Piwowar’s conversation with OCPF, the agency indicated that the School Department did not commit a violation by distributing its letter through the school website or social media platforms.

Using public resources for political purposes can also raise issues under the conflict-of-interest, which is administered by the state Ethics Commission, Sullivan said in the Dec. 19 letter.

In late November, the School Committee voted unanimously to distribute information to residents about the Dec. 2 election regarding $130,000 for field maintenance and other budget items.

“The Billerica School Committee has asked me to provide information to the parent, guardian, and greater Billerica community to help ensure that citizens are appropriately informed about the December 2 election,” Piwowar wrote in the Nov. 27 email.

In that email, Piwowar mentioned how he wrote a similar document in 2015 to address the high school project, titling one of the sections, “Importance of Factual Information.”

“Within that section, I wrote that ‘if misinformation is spread in the community, it should be addressed as soon as possible.’ Please allow this memo to serve a similar purpose as it relates to the December 2 election,” Piwowar wrote.

In the email, Piwowar explained the budget amendment, and what a “Yes” or “No” vote would mean for the town. He also addressed whether this type of budget amendment was ordinary, and that the School Committee passed a resolution in support of the budget article.

Piwowar included links to the town website for more information on the plan’s specifics.

In 1978, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the City of Boston could not appropriate money, or use money previously appropriated for other purposes, to influence a ballot question.

As a result, OCPF ruled that governmental entities cannot spend public resources to influence or affect the outcome of a ballot question, even if the information is intended to be objective and factual.

The “Yes” side prevailed in the Dec. 2 Billerica special election by a 2,631-2,312 margin. Technically, the election did not count because there was less than 20 percent voter turnout. Thus, Town Meeting’s approval of the funding article stands.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.