State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed a lawsuit May 1 in Montgomery County against Attorney General Luther Strange and the Baldwin County Board of Education over what he called misuse of taxpayer funds during the “Build Baldwin Now” campaign for higher property taxes in Baldwin County earlier this year.
Zeigler announced the lawsuit from behind a podium in the conference room at the Wind Chase Inn in Loxley on Monday. The suit names Zeigler, a Mobile resident, and Baldwin County residents David Peterson and Charles L. McMinn as plaintiffs.
Strange, school board President Norman Moore, Superintendent Robbie Owen and board members David Tarwater, Angie Swiger and Shannon Cauley are named as defendants.
Zeigler said there are two parts to the lawsuit. The first seeks a declaratory judgment against Strange’s 2014 opinion, which said it was legal for the school board to use taxpayer funds in a political campaign.
If the declaratory judgment is issued, the lawsuit also seeks restitution of the approximately $250,000 spent by the board on the pro-tax campaign.
“If we are to lose on the declaratory judgment, then the restitution will not be available,” Zeigler said. “We have to win on the first part to ever get to the restitution. I believe that we have an excellent chance on winning the declaratory judgment.”
School board members David Cox, Tony Myrick and Cecil Christenberry are absent from the list of defendants. In November the board passed a resolution requesting the Baldwin County Commission to allow a special election March 31. Cox voted against the resolution, and Christenberry had not yet replaced former board member Bob Callahan, who did not seek reelection in the previous cycle.
Zeigler said he personally paid the $560 filing fee for the lawsuit and approximately $3,000 in legal fees were paid by a group of the lawsuit’s supporters. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Julian McPhillips and Chase Estes of Montgomery-based firm McPhillips Shinbau, LLP.
Wind Chase Inn owner Kevin Spriggs said the push for the lawsuit began when parents complained about Build Baldwin Now campaign materials posted on school property.
“We felt at that time that the use of school facilities and property, and having teachers passing out campaign literature were activities that were banned by the 2010 law,” Spriggs said. “The law prohibits such activities and named schools and school boards in the law. After we complained to state officials, Mr. Zeigler got interested in it.”
Zeigler said the issue was no longer just a Baldwin County issue, with other tax referendums popping up in Auburn, Muscle Shoals and Lawrence County.
“Over the next four years, there could be as many as 30 counties with referendums regarding school boards or county commissions,” Zeigler said. “It is important we get a ruling because this is no longer a Baldwin issue. This is an Alabama issue. We need the guidance of this declaratory judgment in all 67 counties.”
Spriggs made the news when it was revealed that school officials told the system’s bus drivers not use his gas stations in Daphne. Owen reversed the rule and told media outlets it was a policy approved by the previous administration.
Zeigler noted the lawsuit does not mention his job as state auditor and has nothing to do with it, although he received the complaints through his office.
“I don’t have jurisdiction over this,” he said. “It would already be settled if I did.”
Baldwin County Board of Education representatives would not comment on the lawsuit on Monday.
Meanwhile, at a separate event April 30, the county commission and school board hosted a joint work session seeking public comments on how to fix the county’s education funding shortfall.
In March voters rejected the proposed 8-mill property tax increase the school board said would have funded a 10-year, $350 million capital campaign that included building new elementary schools in Daphne, Gulf Shores, Bay Minette and Spanish Fort as well as a new Gulf Shores High School. The BCBE also said the funds would potentially help create a new feeders pattern in the Belforest community and Spanish Fort’s “Golden Triangle.”
Further, voters rejected the renewal of several existing property taxes and left the county short of the 10 mills it needs to receive state funding.
For more than two hours, residents called for increased transparency and accountability before a packed house at the Baldwin County Central Annex in Robertsdale.
Some of the residents brought ideas on cost-saving measures, public committees, town hall meetings, website reforms and more. Others berated the county’s education leaders on why they say the public had lost trust in the board.
Spriggs called for school board President Norm Moore’s job at the meeting, saying the school board should be held responsible for using taxpayer dollars to fund its “Build Baldwin Now” campaign and for the budget shortfalls that caused the need for tax increases.
Other speakers said the school board should model itself after the county commission, which posts meeting agendas, public notices, meeting videos, a “virtual checkbook” and more on its website to help those who can’t attend meetings to keep up with what the county is doing.
“I can go on the computer and in a heartbeat tell you what they wrote a check for and figure out what they are doing,” Harold McGee said. “I can tell you almost every penny that the county commission has spent over the last few years just looking at their website.”
Several speakers requested cuts to the Digital Renaissance program, which the county has spent $24 million on to give students Apple computers and technology.
Gulf Shores High School Principal Ernie Rosado said he understands the calls for more transparency, but suggested residents should spend time in the schools before criticizing what educators do.
“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that you just have to see,” Rosado said. “Walk the hallways, see what’s going on in the classrooms. Every time we invite people to an open house, we have small crowds.”