Districts' cash pool beefs up lobby

Posted on February 12, 2007 | Type: In the News
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East Valley school districts are spending tens of thousands of dollars to lobby the Legislature this year, in hope the lawmakers will send more of the state's precious funding their way. The Mesa Unified School District, the state's largest district, has budgeted up to $45,000 to spend on lobbying by Jaime Molera, a former state superintendent of public instruction. The district hired Molera, in part, to work with lawmakers on issues related to Career Ladder, a performance pay plan that is a large piece of how the district pays its teachers, he said.

Molera said he also is working to make sure there is funding to hire more teachers if the state Board of Education decides to require more math and science credits for high school graduation.

While Mesa flies solo when it comes to lobbying efforts, other East Valley districts have increasingly joined together, pooling resources - and clout - when it comes to wooing lawmakers.

"If you're a lobbyist and you're looking around ... these contracts are not big contracts," said Mike Smith, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators Association. "But these consortiums bring the money to a threshold that says (to lobbyists) 'Hey, it's worth it to me.'"

The Scottsdale Unified School District, for example, spent $10,000 this year to join with nine other districts to hire a lobbyist. By pooling their money, the districts were able to free up some $70,000 to hire Public Policy Partners, a lobbying group, said Dave Peterson, district chief of finance and facilities.

They're lobbying for funding for utilities and facilities and a professional growth program for teachers.

The Apache Junction, Chandler and Gilbert unified school districts joined the same group.

In addition, the Chandler district also hired its own lobbyist to deal with Chandler-specific issues. In all, Chandler is spending nearly $35,000 on lobbying, said district chief financial officer Joel Wirth.

With increased lobbying, however, comes the possibility that districts will end up lobbying against one another.

Last year, for example, one West Valley group pushed for legislation that would have benefited its districts, but spelled disaster for the Mesa district, Smith said.

"What it really came down to was lobbying styles and how you perceive your role as a lobbyist," he said. "I represent my client right to the edge of the cliff, because that's what they hired me for - or, to the greater good."

This year, he said the statewide organizations spoke with districts, pleading with them to coordinate efforts.

It's paid off, he said, and this session the lobbying efforts have largely avoided the conflicts that arose last year.

Some observers, however, believe school lobbying is a waste, no matter how it's done, because it uses taxpayer money.

"It's reasonable for citizens to say, 'I see how that's benefiting me,' but that's really a short-term gain," said Ben Barr of the Goldwater Institute. "Lobbying by one group then encourages lobbying by more, and it drives spending up."

He also believes districts spend more on lobbying than they report because administrators often spend time lobbying for specific issues.

Barr said he'd like to see a move to stop all tax-funded lobbying.

Still, supporters say school districts are so large, they need someone to advocate for them. For example, the Mesa school district employs nearly 11,000 full-time and part-time employees and manages a $570 million budget.

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