- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s largest public schools districts are still using local tax dollars to pay for lobbyists at the Capitol, and more than three-fourths of that money is coming from districts in the Omaha area, an analysis by The Associated Press has found.

Schools have continued to retain lobbyists despite a 2011 change in Nebraska’s school-funding formula that prevents them from using state aid to cover the cost. School spending on lobbyists as a whole increased between 2012 and last year, while the number of districts that hired them grew from 14 to 16.

School districts paid more than $477,000 last year to lobbyists, in addition to membership fees for statewide groups that advocate for school boards, administrators and the state’s educational service units, according to state lobbying records. During the prior year, schools spent around $414,000.

Of the money that came from individual districts last year, nearly $366,800 was spent by those in Douglas and Sarpy County and the Omaha area’s Learning Community. Lincoln Public Schools paid $45,086.

Critics of the practice say it’s unfair because most small districts can’t afford full-time, professional advocates at the Capitol. Schools have fought in recent years over Nebraska’s state-aid formula, which distributes money based on land values, student enrollment and many other factors. Changes that lawmakers make to the formula can affect the amount that any one district receives.

“To allow these bigger school districts to go out and hire lobbyists - it gives them an advantage,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman for the group Common Cause Nebraska. “Many of those smaller districts have no idea what’s going to happen until they get word from the state. They’re at a tremendous disadvantage, and they have to just take what they get.”

Gould said he believes lobbyists may have exacerbated last year’s unusually bitter dispute over state aid, because the hired advocates were looking out for their own clients without regard for the statewide interest. Lobbyists for the larger schools argued that smaller districts have a bounty of high-value farmland, but don’t want to raise local property taxes to pay for schools.

The spending frustrates some rural school administrators, who said their smaller budgets make it difficult to compete for state aid when lawmakers are in session. Larger districts contend the lobbyists are a worthwhile investment for schools that have tens of thousands of students.

In response, a dozen smaller districts have formed a group called STANCE - Schools Taking Action for Nebraska Children’s Education - to try to maintain a stronger presence at the Capitol. About half of the member districts are within an hour’s drive of Lincoln, but others are too far out to make the round trip in a single day, said Crete Public Schools Superintendent Kyle McGowan.

McGowan said senators and the governor have always made time to meet with him when he visits the Capitol, but his job doesn’t allow him to visit as frequently as a regular lobbyist.

“For a district of our size, we have a budget that doesn’t lend itself to expending a significant amount of money on lobbying,” said McGowan, who made the 40-minute drive from Crete to the Capitol more than a dozen times during last year’s session.

Having a lobbyist at the Capitol may help schools stay in touch with lawmakers and could help them react faster to sudden changes in a bill, said Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk.

But Scheer, the vice chairman of the Education Committee, said senators are just as likely to turn to superintendents who have a more detailed knowledge of their schools. Lawmakers also have an obvious interest in listening to their constituents, he said, even as a shifting population gives more political power to Omaha.

After a year without a lobbyist, the Papillion-La Vista School District in suburban Omaha decided to retain one again for the 2013 session.

The lobbyist was primarily hired to push for changes to the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, said district finance director Doug Lewis. But the district also wants to keep close watch on Nebraska’s workers’ compensation laws and school aid, he said, and a lobbyist helps accomplish that goal.

“Having a person down at the Legislature to keep track of those issues has been very beneficial for the district,” he said.

Longtime lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, whose clients have included Bellevue and Lincoln schools, said rural districts were the first to hire lobbyists in the 1960s in an effort to prevent a wave of school consolidations. Small schools are still represented collectively through groups like the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, he said.

Unlike superintendents, he said, lobbyists have a broader sense of the politics in the Legislature and how school aid fits into the overall state budget.

“People hire lobbyists for the same reason they don’t cut their own hair or try to fix their own car,” Radcliffe said.

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