More Districts Hiring D.C. Lobbying Firms

By Michelle R. Davis — May 29, 2002 7 min read
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Officials of the Medical Lake, Wash., school district tried for years to gather enough money to rebuild a crumbling elementary school on a military base in their district.

But local taxpayers wouldn’t support new spending for construction, and district leaders seemed unable to get federal help. Meanwhile, students ate lunch in the hallways, and the roof leaked.

Then the 2,300-student district hired a lobbyist here in the nation’s capital, Robert M. Brooks, paying him $39,000 in 2001. Before long, the Department of Defense budget included $6 million for a new school on the base, largess that district officials credit in part to Mr. Brooks’ efforts. The state kicked in several million as well. The district plans to break ground on the school in August.

School systems for years have sent lobbyists to state capitals to schmooze with lawmakers and draw attention to district needs. It’s also been the norm for the biggest districts to hire Washington lobbying firms or have staff lobbyists mine for federal dollars. But as state budgets tighten, many medium-size and small districts now want in on the action in Washington.

“Clearly, there is more lobbying going on now,” said Mr. Brooks, the president of Evergreen Associates. “There’s all this big hoopla for education, and then there’s no money. People have to take the law into their own hands, so to speak.”

But it’s a practice that makes some educators and policy analysts nervous. Even in the Medical Lake district, which was successful in its search for federal help, not everyone is cheering.

“The reality is that we couldn’t do it on our own, but I’m not comfortable with it,” Chester Carothers, the school board chairman, said of the district’s use of a lobbyist. “You’ve got to do a lot of soul-searching and base it on the severity of the need.”

Burrowing for Bucks

For some districts, lobbying plays an essential role. Washington lobbyists know the way through the intricate maze of congressional appropriations, can translate Capitol Hill lingo, and have contacts in a wide range of political offices and agencies.

Lobbyists also know how to sniff out federal money from unusual places, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center for Education Policy, who spent 27 years as an aide to the House education committee.

“They’ll act like moles,” he said of lobbyists, “and burrow into all these different bills and find a little bit of gold for somebody.”

But to some, “lobbyist” is a dirty word with “I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch- mine” connotations. In the high-ceilinged halls of the U.S. Capitol, their smooth ways and expensive suits give them away as they glad-hand and stroke political egos.

Their services are expensive, but Skip Bafalis, a partner in the Washington firm of Alcalde & Fay, says the success is measurable. Lobbyists just make sure a district’s needs are known.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” said Mr. Bafalis, who earlier spent 10 years as a congressman from Florida. “School districts all of a sudden have realized there are fantastic opportunities in Washington they weren’t aware of before.”

Alcalde & Fay has at least six districts on its client list, including Florida’s 157,000-student Palm Beach County schools. School board member Susan Whelchel suggested retaining a Washington voice after working previously with federal lobbyists, but worried about investing big bucks—$76,000 a year—in the service.

But Alcalde & Fay lobbyists have since steered half a million dollars in grants and programs to the district, and efforts in the works could land up to $10 million more, Ms. Whelchel said.

“It was a gamble,” she said, “but it’s a gamble that has paid off.”

Lobbyists can also help find obscure grants and unused pots of federal money. And because many lobbyists are former House or Senate members, they often can provide districts with entrée to key federal decisionmakers.

For the Highline school district in Burien, Wash., such access has been essential. The district needs $150 million to equip 15 schools near a runway at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with improvements such as sound-muffling windows and new air systems, said Superintendent Joe McGeehan.

To help find federal aid, he hired the lobbying firm Ball Janik in 2000. Since then, the school has raked in $50 million from the Federal Aviation Administration for the project. In 2001, the district paid Ball Janik $56,000, Mr. McGeehan said.

“I don’t think I could have done this by myself,” Mr. McGeehan said. “We’re a medium-size district with 18,000 students on the other side of the country. I could understand why the head of the FAA might not return my calls.”

But the FAA chief did return Mr. McGeehan’s calls. So did the secretary of transportation, and senators and congressmen. Mr. McGeehan credits Ball Janik.

Serving Pork

But not everyone thinks lobbying and local school districts are a righteous mixture.

Mr. Jennings said “pork barrel” politics means districts that hire high-priced lobbyists win at the expense of those that don’t—regardless of the merits of a program or of need. “The policy is rotten all over,” he said. “It stinks.”

An annual rite of winter in Washington is poking fun at “pork” projects that make it into federal spending bills, specific appropriations not subject to competitive- grant programs or controlled by objective formulas.

The Department of Education’s fiscal 2002 budget was sprinkled with a long list of so- called “earmarks” for projects like fighting “Goth” culture in Missouri and a “Rockin’ the Schools” program in Ohio, as well as many others seemingly more in line with the three R’s. The budget included more than 750 earmarks at a cost of $440 million. That’s part of the department’s nearly $50 billion in discretionary funding. (“Spending Plan for 2002 Laden With ‘Earmarks,’” Jan. 30, 2002.)

For decades, however, the education budget was a relatively pork-free corner of the federal barnyard. The late Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky., who died in office in 1994, was the powerful chairman of the House committee that deals with education appropriations. He kept a tight rein on those special projects. But several years after his death, the floodgates opened.

Mr. Bafalis, the former congressman turned lobbyist, defends the process, saying politicians are better able to target money in their districts.

“Some people call it pork, ... but the vast majority are needed projects in the district, supported by the local community,” he said.

Still, the slippery reputation of the lobbying business makes that explanation unpalatable for some. Steve Weissman, a legislative representative for Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer- advocacy group, said schools need to monitor lobbyists closely. Loose laws and little enforcement leaves lobbying somewhat unregulated, Mr. Weissman said.

“Because Washington is such a mystery and a labyrinth,” he said, “people can get ripped off.”

Educators and analysts say they’re disturbed that the complexity of the federal appropriations system forces schools to divert attention from their real job of teaching students. They say they shouldn’t have to choose between paying for school supplies and hiring lobbyists.

“In an ideal world, school districts would be able to focus internally on improving education, instead of expending resources to pull in more federal funds, while simultaneously fending off more federal regulation,” said Marie Gryphon, a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Other School Voices

There are other ways to have impact in Washington. Much lobbying is already done by a long list of groups that include school districts and teachers as members.

Dan Fuller, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, said it’s not necessary for districts to hire lobbyists. His group lobbies on broad policy issues on behalf of all its members, and districts can send local school board members or superintendents to Washington to meet with politicians.

“A K Street lobbying firm is not going to know the subtleties and nuances that a local school board member does,” he said, in a reference to the downtown Washington location of many such firms.

Some districts split the difference. The tiny Elwood Community Consolidated School District No. 203, with 360 students in Elwood, Ill., didn’t have the resources to hire a Washington lobbyist to safeguard its federal impact-aid funds. The program reimburses districts for federal activity that cuts into property tax-revenue, such as the presence of military bases.

So Elwood’s superintendent, Ronald J. Kanzulak, teamed up with neighboring Wilmington Community Unit School District No. 209U, with 1,609 students, which has similar concerns. The two districts share the part-time lobbying services of the Elwood school district’s lawyer, who periodically visits Washington.

“You have to be creative in this day and age,” he said. “We want most of our dollars that we gain to be spent on the children.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as More Districts Hiring D.C. Lobbying Firms

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