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updated: 5/27/2014 5:11 AM

Should suburban school districts hire lobbyists?

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  • Some suburban school districts have hired lobbyists to go to Springfield in order to secure more tax dollars.

      Some suburban school districts have hired lobbyists to go to Springfield in order to secure more tax dollars.
    Associated Press

 
 

Can hiring lobbyists help suburban school districts influence education policy and bring home more tax dollars?

It's a question two of the suburbs' biggest school districts are pondering in the wake of proposed legislation to overhaul state funding of schools.

School districts rarely hire lobbyists to represent their interests in Springfield, though both Elgin Area School District U-46 and Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 have used them in the past with some success to fight legislation that could have hurt their financial interests. Chicago and Rockford public school systems have lobbyists on their payrolls.

U-46, the state's second-largest school district with more than 40,000 students, still doesn't have the clout of Chicago Public Schools, which educates 395,000 students, when it comes to affecting education policy.

"In Springfield," U-46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders said. "One of the things that we find when we've gone down there, School District U-46 is one of 868 districts outside of Chicago. They don't realize our size."

State records show only 12 school districts statewide and a group representing high school organizations hired lobbyists in 2014. They were paid between $25,000 and $65,000 yearly depending on the district.

U-46 contracted for lobbying services with Bill Luking of Luking & Associates from 2005 to 2009 to fight proposed legislation that would have allowed Bartlett to deannex from the district. U-46 paid the firm $129,000 for 43 months of lobbying efforts that helped prevent passage of that legislation.

Sanders said there was a specific purpose for hiring a lobbyist at the time.

Today, at any given time, numerous bills are being considered in the General Assembly that could affect school funding, including a more than 300-page Senate bill that could reapportion General State Aid, causing concern among many districts. The legislation tries to redefine local need by concentration of poverty and at-risk students.

"No lobbyist can read that bill and tell you what that bill would do to you," Sanders said. "The only group that's going to be able to do it is the Illinois State Board of Education. They don't know who's going to get what, who it is going to effect. I would not recommend to our (school) board that they hire a lobbyist specifically for that bill."

Sanders said the district needs to have a specific legislative agenda to consider the hiring of a lobbyist. "We have to give some direction, some specific need that you want to have a lobbyist for," he added.

Strength in numbers

Most school districts are represented in Springfield 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.

"The strength of our associations, one of the reasons they formed them in the first place was to give support," said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards and head of its legislative department. "Every school board has a vote. Everything that gets approved by our delegate assembly becomes a position paper. It's really the voice of the local school board."

Schwarm said school officials cannot be in Springfield on a daily basis. Between his organization and the Illinois Association of School Administrators, they have six full-time lobbyists in Springfield mining bills constantly.

"If you've got one person in Springfield, they are swimming upstream," Schwarm said. "It's too big. It's almost impossible to keep up. The number of bills that get introduced keeps growing and growing."

About a third of the roughly 5,000 to 6,000 bills introduced yearly could have some impact on local school districts, on issues including transportation, election, prevailing wage, workers' compensation or taxes, he said.

"Out of those 5,000 bills introduced, the ones that actually passed that relate to us might be 100, but we work on a lot more," Schwarm said.

Sorting through the sea of legislation is why school districts pay membership dues to these organizations. Where school officials can help is by putting pressure on local lawmakers, he added.

"Even when we are in Springfield, our strongest asset is that local school board," Schwarm said. "Most of the time when a district has hired an individual lobbyist, they seek us out."

Getting money's worth

U-46's administration has stepped up its efforts to build relationships with area lawmakers in the past few years. In 2010, Sanders and Superintendent Josť Torres helped persuade lawmakers to override Gov. Pat Quinn's veto of legislation that would have cost the district $16 million yearly in General State Aid.

With shrinking education funding from the state and budget constraints, many school districts cannot afford to have a lobbyist on the payroll indefinitely when programs are being affected.

"You have to weigh out whether you can cost-effectively justify spending the money on lobbyists," said Kathleen Burley, a District 300 school board member and co-chairwoman of its legislative committee.

The school board's legislative committee earlier this spring discussed whether to hire a lobbyist and decided not to pursue it at this time.

Burley said the 13-member legislative committee has been monitoring proposed legislation and keeping in touch with local lawmakers, but she recognizes it's a tall order.

"You don't want your administrators spending all their time researching bills," she said. "It's a lot for a committee to do. It looks like we're going to be splitting the committee next year because it's a lot to handle for one group of people. Any district can always use a lobbyist."

District 300 did hire a lobbyist between 2011 and 2013 to address a proposal to extend an economic incentive package for Sears. The tax breaks already had been in place for 23 years and were set to expire in 2013.

"There was a movement to extend the Sears tax breaks for another 15 years," District 300 spokeswoman Allison Strupeck said. "We knew we had to, as a district, act quickly, strategically and aggressively. We complemented (the lobbyist's) work with a very strong and aggressive grass-roots community campaign. He cracked open the door, but it was our community that kicked it wide open."

The lobbyist, she said, enabled district leaders to get "some time on meetings which we otherwise would not have been able to get."

Ultimately, the campaign saved the district $50 million in tax revenues over 15 years -- roughly $3.4 million yearly.

"If we hadn't fought the fight, we would have lost over $10 million a year," Strupeck said. "It was a bittersweet victory. The bitter part was that we weren't able to completely stop the legislation. Considering the politics in Illinois, we feel we did the very best we could."

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