School lobbying: A merry-go-round of big money

Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

It looked good on paper.

But three years after an exclusive Nebraska Watchdog investigation led to changes in state law putting a crimp on school lobbying, it’s business as usual.

The state’s biggest educators are spending millions of tax dollars in order to get their hands on even more tax dollars, according to a new report from Common Cause Nebraska.

Back in 2011 the state tried to clamp down on those high paid pitch men. How? By telling schools they would no longer be allowed to include lobbying expenses as part of their state aid.

State Sen. Bill Avery who pushed the move believed that although schools would still be allowed to hire lobbyists the new restrictions would make a difference.

They did, briefly:

  • Shortly after the change, the 2011-2012 school year, Omaha Public Schools spent $67,115 for lobbying. One year later though, the 2012-2013 school year, OPS shelled out $74,095.28—instead of using state aid dollars OPS simply paid “their lobbing fees through public funds,” according to an OPS spokesperson.
  • After spending nearly $20,000 on lobbying in 2011 the Papillion-La Vista School District dropped its lobbyist in 2012. “We do so reluctantly but will not sacrifice jobs or reductions in the building budgets without looking at (lobbying) as well,” then-Superintendent Rick Black told Nebraska Watchdog. But the time-out lasted only a year, in 2013 P-LV Schools were back in the lobbying business spending nearly $27,000. Spokeswoman Annette Eymann tells Nebraska Watchdog the district felt the Learning Community was/is costing Papillion-La Vista money—the lobbyist was called back to keep a closer eye on things at the State Capitol.

All in all the two years before state aid was taken off the table, 16 of the state’s biggest school districts and the Learning Community spent $959 million for lobbying.

Two years after state aid was blocked, those same districts and the Learning Community spent $903 million.

According to Common Cause’s Jack Gould, it’s back to the drawing board with a long list of questions:

  1. Is the investment in lobbying in the best interest of all Nebraska school children?
  2. Are these districts sacrificing a teacher to hire a lobbyist?
  3. Does the lobbying result in competition for tax dollars leaving the districts without lobbyists with less funding.

Possibly most importantly, Gould wants to know if the lobbyists are working for the best interests of all children or just for the children in the districts that pay them?

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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