Suburban districts spending millions on lobbying organizations

Last year, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 paid four statewide school administration lobbying groups almost $76,000 for dues, conference fees and other program charges.

District 214 officials say the spending is a way to keep administrators and board members up-to-date on current education policies, regulations and state-mandated training as well as to maintain the district's reputation as a model to others.

"We utilize these groups for professional development, conferences and continuing education for our staff," said Patrick Mogge, District 214's director of community engagement and outreach. "We are able to have a greater impact on public education by sharing the great work our staff does through these organizations."

District 214's spending for the lobbying groups was the highest among 93 suburban schools that combined paid more than $2.2 million to the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Principals Association and Illinois Association of School Business Officials. More than two-thirds of that total went to the school board association, according to a Daily Herald analysis of financial reports.

Elgin Area School District U-46, Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville and Aurora, and Grayslake High School District 127 each paid more than $50,000 to the organizations last year.

Some suburban school board members are questioning the costs associated with the organizations, which collectively are known as the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance.

U-46 board member Phil Costello said the $68,910 spent last year on the organizations could have paid the salary of a teacher.

"That's a good argument for not participating, because I'd rather see those dollars spent in the classroom or some other way that's matriculated back into a classroom," he said.

The U-46 board is set to vote in the coming weeks on whether to continue its relationship with the school board association and pay the dues of more than $40,000. Costello does not believe there are enough votes to forgo membership next year.

IASB Executive Director Roger Eddy said school districts are charged dues based on a formula that combines the district's enrollment and financial health. Dues make up roughly 40 percent of the association's annual revenue, he said.

Some have criticized the groups for backing laws that cost taxpayers, who ultimately fund their lobbying efforts.

The alliance is opposing a bill that provides an income tax credit on property taxes for senior citizens who make less than $50,000 a year. The groups also have been vocal critics of Gov. Bruce Rauner's property tax freeze proposal or any other initiatives intended to slow the growth of property tax levies.

"We do oppose the property tax freeze, and the reason we do is because there hasn't been a sustainable, reliable state source, so the local sources have become more relied on," Eddy said. "But we also fight against unfunded mandates that often would actually increase taxes."

Alliance organizations also receive revenue from the annual statewide joint conference held in November in Chicago. Registration runs about $465 per person, and costs to taxpayers add up quickly, with transportation, meals and sometimes lodging picked up by suburban school districts.

"Our mission is to promote quality public education by supporting quality school governance, and making sure resources are adequate to educate children," Eddy said of the alliance's goals, adding taxpayers have many opportunities for input to their local school districts.

"If local taxpayers are concerned, there are certainly avenues that they many times do use, and that's to show up at those budget meetings and talk about where the money is going."

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