Two Long Beach Unified School District board members recently had the district’s superintendent help them complete questionnaires for their reelection campaigns, something experts say violates California’s prohibition on elected officials using public assets for political purposes.
Last month, school board members Erik Miller and Doug Otto, who are both running for reelection in the March 5 primary, submitted answers to five questions the Long Beach Post asked them for an election guide.
However, after noticing similarities in their responses, the Post asked Miller and Otto to rewrite their answers and also filed a public records request for their communications with the LBUSD’s publicly funded staff. The records showed Otto and Miller both asked for help answering the Post’s questions, which Superintendent Jill Baker then provided.
In one case, all three said that “LBUSD is committed to addressing learning loss, particularly among low-income and English-learning students affected by school closures,” before laying out a nearly identical seven-point list of measures the district is taking.
When they submitted their answers to the Post, neither Miller nor Otto disclosed that portions of them had been written by someone else.
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“I took a shortcut by using some of the stuff that Jill sent to me,” Otto later said in an interview, but he denied that he was trying to take advantage of public resources to boost his campaign, saying he was merely asking for factual information from the district. Otto is running unopposed.
Miller, who is running against community activist Jerlene Tatum, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The two school board members likely broke the law when they asked for campaign help from taxpayer-funded school district staff, according to Bob Stern, a retired attorney who previously served as general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political reform watchdog.
“I think it’s pretty black and white,” said Stern. “Nobody is going to go to jail over this, but they shouldn’t be writing campaign statements for candidates, and this is a campaign statement.”
California law says it’s illegal for any elected state or local officer “to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law.”
Baker was paid $405,794 by taxpayers in 2022, according to Transparent California, which tracks publicly funded payrolls.
Stern said it’s fine for school board members to have discussions with the superintendent, even during campaign season, but Baker filling out answers for their campaigns crossed a legal line.
It could be viewed as an in-kind contribution to both candidates on behalf of the district, and it’s illegal for the district to contribute to a candidate running for a district seat, according to Stern.
Baker said she was unaware the questions she answered for Otto and Miller were for their campaigns.
She said she routinely answers board members’ questions about educational issues, and the first four questions on their list were about common concerns: declining enrollment, pandemic learning loss, delays in construction projects and violence on school campuses.
“If they were asking me something that I wouldn’t normally get asked or haven’t said in public already, it would have maybe given me pause,” Baker said.
Baker did not provide an answer to the fifth and final question she’d been sent: “If elected, what is a concrete policy change you will immediately advocate for at a school board meeting?”
Baker said she avoided answering it because she did not want to “involve myself in their campaigns.”
After emailing her answers to both school board members, Baker followed up with a text message to Miller.
“Hi Erik, I sent you answers to the questions last night,” she wrote. “You should connect with Doug because he asked and received the same answers from me.”
Baker did not respond to an email asking why she sent that message to Miller.
Stern, the former FPPC attorney, said if prosecutors were to pursue this issue, they would likely push for Otto and Miller to pay back the LBUSD for the time district staff spent filling out the questionnaires.
Matt Lesenyie, a professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach, agreed the situation appears to have violated the law. He also questioned why candidates running for school board, which sets policy and hires and fires the superintendent, needed so much help expressing their views on educational issues.
“Why are you running for office if you can’t articulate a position?” Lesenyie said.
Whether or not there are legal repercussions, Lesenyie said, voters should be disappointed.
“I’d read this as just being less corrupt and more lazy,” he said.