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updated: 4/8/2014 7:44 PM

U-46 school board revisits using lobbyists

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  • Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent José Torres

      Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent José Torres


Elgin Area School District U-46 officials are debating whether the district needs a lobbyist to represent its interests in Springfield.

Administrators with the state's second largest school district researched and presented information about other districts that have used lobbyists to the school board this week.

Superintendent José Torres said two of the largest area school districts, Chicago and Rockford public schools, have lobbyists on their payroll.

"We found that eight out of 869 school districts have retained lobbyists in Springfield (in 2014)," Torres said. "The data suggests that it's very specific to the issues that they might be addressing, not just generic lobbying, except for CPS and Rockford. Over the last few years, of course, we have been engaged in some of that without a lobbyist per se."

U-46 previously contracted for lobbying services with Bill Luking of Luking and Associations for several years. That contract ended in 2008 as a result of the firm not doing a good job, officials said.

"The district had no legislative agenda or direction other than to monitor legislation related to the Bartlett disconnection issue," Chief of Staff Tony Sanders wrote in a memo to Torres. "With your arrival in 2008, we began re-establishing lines of communication with our local legislators and making more trips to Springfield."

Torres said in 2010 his administration was successful, through Sanders' leadership, in getting lawmakers to override Gov. Pat Quinn's veto of legislation that would have cost the district $16 million yearly in General State Aid.

"In 2008-09 when we were in major crisis in the state, we realized that we did not have a presence in Springfield," Torres said. "And so when we went there, we really focused on unfunded mandates. We actually ran a campaign where we took the lead in doing that. Just a year and a half ago, there was some PTELL (Property Tax Extension Limitation Law) legislation that we opposed, which would have resulted in a double cap to our local property taxes."

State records show, of the 11 school districts that had contracts with lobbyists in 2013, four were unit districts serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, four districts served kindergarten through eighth grade, two were elementary districts, and one was a high school district. The lobbyists were paid between $25,000 and $65,000 depending on the district.

Most school districts hire lobbyists for specific reasons, or are represented through memberships with other organizations, such as the Illinois Association of School Boards, School Management Alliance and Large Unit District Association, of which U-46 is a member, officials said.

Carpentersville Unit District 300 previously hired a lobbyist to address a proposal to extend an economic incentive package for Sears. District 300 does not currently have a lobbyist for 2014, per Sanders' memo.

School board member Veronica Noland said the district cannot rely merely on member associations to help it understand complex education funding legislation.

"I'm growing more concerned because we all know that education is one of the priorities in the legislature this year," she said. "I feel like we need guidance specific to our district. We are unique in our district. We cross so many communities. We have a very high poverty rate. If we want to influence any part of this legislature ... we need to have our representative in Springfield, whether it's staff or a lobbyist."

Officials agreed if the district were to consider hiring a lobbyist again, it needs to first establish a legislative agenda.

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