A Utah school district spent taxpayer money on ads advocating for a $283 million bond last year. That likely broke the law, audit finds.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hillcrest High School in Canyons School District, built in 1962, is showing its age. The bond passed in 2017 will help rebuild it.

Canyons School District likely broke the law last year when it mailed out postcards — paid for with taxpayer money — about a $283 million bond proposal to renovate its schools that seemed to encourage residents to vote in favor, according to a state audit released quietly this week.

The new report from the Office of the State Auditor found that the district appears to have “improperly used public resources” to advocate for a position. Utah law prohibits using any public dollars to campaign for or against candidates or initiatives.

Canyons spokesman Jeff Haney responded in a statement Wednesday saying the district “will enact a policy that will specifically address any future ballot-related activities.”

From August to November 2017, the district sent out five mailers and an information pamphlet and posted six digital ads. The audit found that the majority of those crossed the line or were “questionable” in regards to the state’s code. They veered into advocacy and did not stick to providing only factual information.

One, for instance, pointed out that the oldest schools in the district were built in the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and gas was 24 cents per gallon. It then referred to current students as future superheroes who should have better facilities. Another said if the bond passed — which it did, with about 56 percent of the vote — it would go toward “inspiring greater student achievement, promoting classroom innovation, fully engaging and strengthening communities, providing stellar customer service and remaining fiscally responsible to all stakeholders.”

The state does not restrict a school district from sending out informational materials explaining what a bond would do and why it is needed — as long as both sides are explained so there is “equal access.” The audit said just one mailer included a statement from someone opposed to the measure.

“Public resources should only be used to facilitate and encourage political discussion and participation,” the report noted.

The district spent $39,000 on the flyers and ads considered to be in violation.

The auditors recommend that the district try to recover the misused money and refer the indiscretion to the Salt Lake County district attorney for possible penalties (the office already declined to move forward with a case about Canyons' mailers last year).

Wendy Davis, who filed the initial complaint against Canyons over the postcards, called the report “a win for the process” of making sure that election law is followed.

“I think the findings are as strong as they could possibly be,” she said. “They found them in violation of Utah code. That’s a big deal.”

Davis voted against the bond and believes “the biggest violation here, to me, is abusing the public’s trust.”

She added: “The district stacked the deck and used public money to benefit the district.”

Haney, though, believes part of the reason the district misstepped is because the law is ambiguous. Canyons reached out to the lieutenant governor’s office for guidance before running any ads, he said, but election officials there declined to provide more information and instead told school administrators to read the statute.

“It would be beneficial if the language could be clarified or improved,” Haney added, suggesting “this review not only provides valuable information for Canyons District, but other school districts that plan to seek voter approval for bond issuances to build and improve schools for Utah students.”

The Office of the State Auditor also released a review of Ogden School District, which found it, too, illegally advocated for a bond through flyers.

The district spent $1,600 on materials that promised schools “will benefit” from the measure. The report also said administrators there improperly used their email accounts to send messages of support for the proposal.

While Ogden School District responded in a letter saying it accepts the findings of the audit, it suggested that “no actions were done with malintent.” And it challenged the auditors for deeming use of the word “benefit” an act of advocacy.

“We believe it is reasonable that a school district and its board of education should be allowed to voice the position that new and renovated school buildings will benefit the students who attend those school buildings to receive a public education.”

The district said it believes had it pressed forward with litigation on the issue, it would have won. But it decided not to use taxpayer dollars for a lawsuit.

With bonds, school districts borrow money to cover construction costs and pay the funds back over the course of several years.