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School officials likely violated campaign finance laws, Town Counsel says

The Pierce School. Photo by Clare Ong.
July 12, 2023
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Several Brookline school officials likely violated campaign finance law by sending out emails to parents with information about ballot questions ahead of the May election, according to Brookline town counsel Joseph Callanan.

By sending “unsolicited” emails to various school email lists about the operating override and Pierce school rebuild ballot questions, Superintendent Linus Guillory and four principals improperly used public resources, Callanan wrote in a report published July 7.

Callanan was investigating because a Brookline resident, Joslin Murphy, filed a complaint to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance after the election. Callanan sent his report to the state agency, which does not publicly comment on investigations.

School officials collecting and presenting information about the ballot questions was not improper, Callanan said, but he believes they violated the law when they used official school email lists to distribute that information. “Unsolicited emails containing information about ballot questions represent a campaign finance violation in and of themselves,” Callanan wrote.

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In total, there were seven emails sent out to school parents and guardians which contained probable violations. Callanan noted that discussion of the Pierce school, the more controversial of the two questions and the motivation behind the complaint, made up only a small portion of the emails.

Staff misunderstood the law

Callanan wrote that most of the school staff he spoke to misunderstood the campaign finance laws, believing they were allowed to distribute information about ballot questions as long as it was factual, and not construed as advocacy.

Callanan said that within the next year, he will provide training to town and school department heads about campaign finance laws.

Callanan also asked the state campaign finance agency to help determine the value of the public resources which were wrongfully used so that the town can be reimbursed.

“While public employees may have violated the law, the extent of those violations must be placed in context,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I do not excuse them.”

A spokesperson for the Public Schools of Brookline did not respond to a request for comment.

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