Sam Olens is a gifted attorney. I had the chance to hear him speak last weekend and was duly impressed with his thinking on a broad range of current political issues. I won't say that I agreed with all of the Attorney General's opinions, but I absolutely respect his ability to articulate his position and explain the thinking that got him there.
That said, I am struggling to understand Mr. Olens' directive that local school boards are required to be silent on the charter school amendment. Mr. Olens responded to a request for opinion from the State School Superintendent with a letter that included the following: "Local school boards do not have the legal authority to expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters."
Not spending tax money to fund a campaign is clear and easy to understand. I cannot think of anyone who would approve of a school board using a portion of the property taxes it collected to pay for political ads or hire campaign staff.
The reference to "other resources," however, is much more ambiguous. Is the attorney general suggesting that school board members who discuss the charter schools amendment during a board meeting are acting improperly? Would Mr. Olens say that a school board that adopted a resolution of support or opposition for the amendment has engaged "other resources" and thus violated state law?
If Mr. Olens' answer to these questions turns out to be yes, then the next logical question is whether any elected body has the legal authority to engage in these types of acts. If Mr. Olens determines that it is a violation of law for school boards to adopt resolutions codifying their position on the charter school amendment, it seems that it is also a violation for city councils and county commissions to adopt resolutions on proposed amendments to the state's constitution. More to the point, Mr. Olens' position suggests that mayors, county executives and even the Governor are prohibited from using the "other resources" provided by their offices to advocate or oppose constitutional amendments in general and the charter school amendment specifically.
I don't know about you, but I want to know what my school board collectively thinks about the charter school amendment. Mr. Olens' order to silence these elected bodies on this issue is a disservice to the electorate. I realize that many will say that the attorney general is just calling balls and strikes; that he is interpreting the law using proper legal analysis. That may very well be true. Nonetheless, the voice of elected school boards need to be heard on this issue and their expression need not be at the risk of legal penalty.
Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.