Former Guilford County Commissioner requests investigation into school bond promotion

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RALEIGH — Former Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson is asking the Guilford County Board of Elections to investigate issues surrounding the promotion of a proposed $1.7 billion school bond. 

“It has come to his attention that, with respect to a school bond referendum and a referendum for a sales tax increase that appear on the May 17, 2022, ballot, Guilford County is expending taxpayer funds and other government resources to promote a viewpoint favoring the passage of both referenda,” wrote Branson’s attorney Charles Winfree in a letter to Guilford County Elections Board members.  

A copy of the letter was also sent to N.C. State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell, Guilford County Attorney Matthew Mason and two Council of State members; State Treasurer Dale Folwell and State Auditor Beth Wood. 

In an interview with Branson, he confirmed to North State Journal that the school district had been busing students to the polls and that he questioned the legality of 17-year-olds possibly voting this month on the bond issue when they are not eligible to vote until they turn 18. He also said the Guilford Board of Elections declined to act and “kicked it to the state board” to deal with. 

The letter goes on to detail a lopsided presentation on the county’s website of the financial impact of the bond, irregularities in a mailer about the bond and electioneering concerns. 

Winfree’s letter says the information about the bond displayed on  presents an “entirely unbalanced discussion of the bond, accentuating the needs and downplaying the costs of the bond.” He also points out there is “no discussion of the hundreds of millions of dollars” in interest payments and other bond-related costs that the county will be responsible for. 

A mailer “touting the benefits of passing the bond” sent to area residents was also mentioned by Winfree, who notes that the item had “no disclaimer identifying who paid for these electioneering materials.”  An exhibit containing images of the mailer was attached to the letter.  

Branson told North State Journal he wants to know “where the money was coming from.” 

“Is it political action committees who are filing or is it Guilford County schools along with Guilford County?” Branson asked about the funding source for bond promotion activities. 

Winfree’s letter also called out electioneering and political activities happening in Guilford Public Schools. 

“In addition, I am informed that school principals have been instructed to hold mandatory meetings with school teachers and staff, the main purpose of which is to encourage or direct them to work for the passage of these two referenda, regardless of their personal opinion on the merits of the bonds,” wrote Winfree, who goes on to add both activities violate state statutes. 

The statutes cited by Winfree are N.C.G.S. 153A-456 which includes prohibitions on county funds or assets being used for endorsing a referendum, and N.C.G.S. 153A-99, which prohibits the use of public funds for political purposes. 

According to parents in Guilford County, teachers and staff were not the only ones subjected to pro-bond meetings. Students at a high school in the district attended a mandatory assembly and were allegedly told to “vote yes” for the bond.  

GCS Parents: do you know your kids are being told to vote Yes for the school bond? There was an assembly @WGHS_hornets yesterday for juniors and seniors by You Can Vote NC,” tweeted Take Back Our Schools – GCS, a parent-led group in the district. “A few key points of interest:  Parents were not given any communication in advance about the assembly.” 

Take Back Our Schools – GCS also tweeted that students were told they would get “nice things for their school” if they voted yes on the bond while encouraging students of age to register to vote.  

Additionally, Take Back Our Schools – GCS tweeted that a social media post indicated the assembly that took place at West Guilford High School is a “district initiative that all high schools will be participating in” and that “permission slips” would be sent home to let the students be bused by the district to the polls. 

This isn’t the first time Guilford County Public Schools has drawn criticism regarding the use of school buses for arguably political purposes. 

In 2020 the district drew fire for transporting students to polling locations to vote using district transportation and parents, including a county commissioner, reported being unaware their child was being bused to the polls.  

That same year, 74 Guilford school buses were used without notifying the school board to create a wall around a Jill Biden “Get Out The Vote” rally in Greensboro on Oct. 31.

About A.P. Dillon 648 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_