'Yes, I think they violated the law,' says Rep. Julie Parrish when presented with a newsletter from Portland Public Schools announcing a board vote.

This story has been updated.

SCREENSHOT: PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS ON YOUTUBE - PPS Board Vice Chair Rita Moore presented the resolution in support of Ballot Measure 101 — staff did not present nor recommend the vote, which was unanimously in favor. A Portland Public Schools decision to publicize the result of a Jan. 9 vote of the board of education may have run afoul of election law.

A newsletter sent Jan. 17 to about 58,000 parents, students and community members noted the school board's unanimous decision to urge voters to pass Ballot Measure 101. It links to a page on the PPS website with quotes from board members about why they feel the measure is important to pass.

SCREENSHOT: PPS PULSE NEWSLETTER - The Portland Public Schools board voted to urge a yes vote on Measure 101, but the communications department's choice to publicize that decision seems to run afoul of election law.

A Jan. 9 tweet by Harry Esteve, director of strategic communications and outreach at PPS, also noted the decision.

The Secretary of State's handbook on restrictions on political campaigning by public employees states that if there is a decision by a political body on a ballot item, no public employee time may be used to prepare or promote that decision.

A public employee may not, according to page 16 of the handbook, "include the vote or position of the governing body in a jurisdiction newsletter or other publication."

One exception would be if the public employee, as part of their regular job duties, regularly publicized neutral lists of the outcomes of all of the jurisdiction's votes.

Neither the PPS Pulse newsletter nor Esteve's Twitter account noted any other decisions made that night, which included a corrective action plan for botched financial statements, a complaint appeal and various items on the business agenda, according to the board materials.

Debra Royal, chief of staff for Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, declined comment other than to say that the Elections Division would investigate if it receives a complaint.

Chief Petitioner for Ballot Measure 101, Julie Parrish, said she believes the school district violated elections law, but that it's not the most egregious she's heard of in her campaign to get rid of the health insurance tax.

Parrish said school staffers at Beaverton School District forwarded her a Dec. 18 all-staff email from Superintendent Don Grotting that she said gave misleading and one-sided information on the ballot measure. Two days later, after a complaint from Parrish, Grotting sent a follow-up with a correction and the information that the district's health insurers Kaiser and Blue Cross had already added the 1.5 percent tax to the district's health insurance rates, totaling a cost of $540,000.

If the measure fails, and if legislators take all $330 million that's at stake out of the K-12 budget, Grotting had said the district could be impacted by as much as $14 million by the failure of M101. Parrish said that is highly suspect and speculative given that no lawmakers she's talked to on either side of the aisle has suggested taking the money out of the State School Fund and there are other ways to make up the difference.

Portland Public Schools Director of Communications Dave Northfield said the district newsletter is meant to distribute information on the board's decisions and staffers are "very careful" to present them impartially. After the Tribune emailed salient language Thursday from the Secretary of State's handbook to him and Esteve, Northfield responded Friday afternoon that they were unaware of the requirements and would take it into consideration in future editions.

"We use PPS Pulse as a newspaper to report on news of the district and get it out to the audience — which includes the PPS community, family, staff — so we were covering the news of the district," Northfield said, noting many comms staffers are former journalists. "We didn't think that we were taking a position. We will definitely change how we cover those sorts of things."

Public employees do have free speech rights on personal time, in their private capacity, and with personal resources. Likewise, elected officials are free to use personal resources to advocate positions on ballot measures, such as school board member Rita Moore did on her Twitter account.

PPS employees have been in hot water before for communications that have been found to violate elections law. In 2011, eight employees were found by the Elections Division to have illegally promoted the $548 million school improvement bond, omitting information about the cost to taxpayers. In 2005, then-Superintendent Vicki Phillips and her communications chief paid $175 each in fines, according to The Oregonian, for a district-wide letter that discouraged families from getting rid of a tax that would impact school revenue.

UPDATE (1/19/18): This story was updated with a response from the district.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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