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Schools want to beef up lobbying efforts

By Kyle Barnett -   Nov 07, 2013

The St. Charles Parish School Board is looking at increasing their lobbying efforts from a five-month period to year round under a contract that is currently being discussed with the school systemís lobbyist.

Dannie Garrett was contracted to provide lobbying for St. Charles Parish Public Schools for the past two years through New Orleans law firm Butler Snow, however, this year Garrett has established his own lobbying practice and is offering expanded services for a slightly increased price.

Garrett’s services have come at a time when there has been increasing movement to reshape public schools throughout the state. One of the major changes is the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which provides public funding for students to attend private school. The program was enacted last year and many School Board members expressed opposition to using public funds for that purpose.

Last year, Garrett’s services cost the School Board $32,000 in the five months before, during and after the Louisiana legislative session. Under the proposed contract, Garrett would lobby on behalf of St. Charles Parish Public Schools year round for only a slight increase up to $36,000.

Jim Melohn, chief financial and administrative officer for the district, said in addition to providing advocacy for the school district during the legislative session, the expanded contract would provide more strategic opportunities, such as allowing Garrett time to produce and advocate favorable legislation.

“What we are looking at, and presenting to you, is for a year-round service as opposed to just the five months of the session. The advantage to that is in working with our legislators early and also having him assist in writing legislation to work with us,” he said.

Garrett also provides lobbying services for the Louisiana School Board Association (LSBA) and some local officials expressed concerns that because of that his services in St. Charles Parish Public Schools may be duplicated.

Melohn said that in addition to working for other entities, Garrett does work solely on issues aimed at St. Charles Parish Public Schools.

“You’ve got a lot of things that are specifically unique to St. Charles Parish and maybe four or five parishes because of its items that only affect those areas,” he said.

School Board member John Smith, who is also president of the LSBA, said the decision to contract with Garrett was originally made when negative laws were beginning to impact public schools. Since that time, Smith says that the LSBA has taken a lead on lobbying.

“It was thought that to enter into an agreement with a professional lobbyist would put the district in better position to protect against some of those things that were coming down the pike. Since that time however, the LSBA has reinvented itself and is becoming a much more recognized entity in the legislature and among legislators,” he said.

Smith said he would like to look at alternatives, such as increasing the school district’s central staff’s role in lobbying efforts and perhaps working with Garrett on a case-by-case basis if needed.† †

“Whether we need a fulltime lobbyist at this point in time is something that I think we really need to have a lot more discussion on and whether there are other alternatives to doing that,” Smith said.

School Board member Ellis Alexander said he would like to find out more about Garrett’s advocacy on behalf of other school districts that may have competing views to those of St. Charles Parish Public Schools before making a decision on the proposed contract.

“Find out if he might be doing this for LSBA, he might be doing this for other parishes and there might come a time when he has a conflict representing two opposing parishes. That is something that I’d like to know,” he said.

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