In what appears to have been a last-ditch move to sway a tax ratification election in their favor, South San Antonio ISD officials likely violated state law on Tuesday by paying district employees to go vote for the tax increase.

But for those at home wondering, crime doesn’t pay. Despite their fourth-quarter efforts, voters defeated the tax hike by a 57–43 margin.

Now the perpetrators may face civil and criminal liability for their misdeeds.

The district, called “South San” locally, exited state receivership in January after years of fiscal mismanagement. Staring down a $6.4 million budget deficit and declining enrollment, the district’s school board voted 5–2 to increase local property taxes to the state cap of $1.17 per $100 of property valuation. By law, that tax increase required voter approval. In an effort to reduce participation in the election, the trustees scheduled the tax ratification election for August 14.

But despite setting the only polling locations at South San Central Administration and South San High School and keeping them open during early voting only from 8am–5pm, election results show the tax increase was being defeated by nearly a 2-1 margin during early voting.

So on Tuesday, taking a page from the Texas Association of School Boards’ Culture of Voting plan, school officials decided to pay district employees to go vote for the measure. The San Antonio-based Rivard Report confirmed that South San Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra ordered district school buses be used Tuesday to bus employees from other campuses to the high school and admin building polling sites to vote for the measure.

The desperation move did appear to impact the election results. Despite a blow-out loss during early voting, the tax increase won election day by a 34-vote margin. But it wasn’t enough. With all votes counted, the tax increase failed with 792 votes in favor and 1061 votes against.

Now district officials may be in hot water for misusing school district resources in order to influence the election. In January, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded to a request from State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) opining that busing students or faculty to the polls, absent an educational purpose, would violate Art III, Section 52(a) of the Texas Constitution.

Additionally, misusing public resources for electioneering purposes also violates Chapter 255 of the Election Code, which carries with it penalties of up to a year in jail and fines up to $4,000.

Texas school districts already have too much power to rig tax ratification elections, and do so regularly by scheduling them in the dog days of summer, restricting polling hours, and using rolling polling tactics. It is not tolerable for districts to be allowed to pay employees to go vote during working hours and to bus them to the polls. Saavedra and others at South San responsible for these tactics need to be held accountable for abusing public resources for political gain.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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