The Normandy School District has agreed to spend up to $130,000 on Jefferson City lobbying services in an effort to stave off bankruptcy before the end of the school year.
The move has angered some state lawmakers who say spending education money on lobbyists further strengthens their resolve to defeat a $5 million request to keep Normandy schools from closing this spring.
Normandy officials say it reflects the fact that the district’s only hope for survival rests within the state Capitol — a place they’re unfamiliar with.
“Like any other company or corporate entity, sometimes you do what you have to do to survive,” said Daphne Dorsey, spokeswoman for the school district.
Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols signed a nine-month contract in November with the lobbying firm of Andrew Blunt, son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. The six-page contract says the firm would work within Missouri government to find a “solution to the challenges facing Normandy resulting from their lack of state accreditation.”
The firm, Schreimann, Rackers, Francka & Blunt LLC, agreed, among other things, to provide weekly updates of legislation affecting the north St. Louis County school district, as well as monitor bills as they moved through the Legislature, work to defeat or pass bills impacting the district, and develop relationships with lawmakers on behalf of Normandy.
The district agreed to spend $90,000 for the work over nine months, in addition to a maximum of $40,000 on travel and legislative entertainment.
But the lobbying effort has already backfired in at least one instance.
On Jan. 7, a member of the firm invited members of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee to a Feb. 4 dinner at Gumbo Bottoms Ale House, a microbrewery in Jefferson City.
Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, who has questioned decisions made by Normandy school officials in the past, responded a week later with an email to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Cookson.
“If they are in the financial straits that we know they are, then it is an unconscionable waste of state and local taxpayer dollars to voice their opinion and lobby their representation with a dinner that will surely cost hundreds of dollars,” Parkinson wrote.
The dinner — as well as other meet-and-greet events for Normandy scheduled by the lobbying firm — was canceled. School district dollars would not have gone toward the events, said a woman who answered the phone number provided on the invitation, and said she works for Blunt’s firm.
Parkinson called Normandy’s spending of education dollars on lobbying a poor choice.
“Anyone from the Normandy School Board or the superintendent can knock on my door and say, ‘Can we chat?’” Parkinson said. “That’s $130,000 that could go back in their own classrooms to improve the education of their own students.”
The decision left Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, shaking his head.
“It’s hard to get money from Legislature if they don’t think you’re spending it wisely,” Pierson said.
Sen. David Pearce, who heads the Senate Education Committee, said he was not particularly alarmed by the Normandy lobbying effort.
“It’s not unlike other entities that see the importance of letting their voice be heard in Jefferson City,” he said. “I don’t condone or condemn them.”
Most school districts don’t directly hire lobbyists, but there are several exceptions.
St. Louis Public Schools has a $83,000 annual contract with lobbyist Steven Carroll to represent the district’s interests in Jefferson City this year, according to a district document.
EducationPlus, formerly known as Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, spends $35,000 on lobbying efforts on behalf of a numerous area school districts.
The Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides education for about 23,000 students with disabilities, has budgeted $34,800 this year for lobbying.
In 2011, the Clayton School District spent $40,000 on lobbying during a time when legislators were debating various “fixes” to the school transfer statute, which allows children in unaccredited school districts to transfer to higher-performing ones at their home district’s expense. Clayton schools were the subject of the court case that ultimately was resolved by the Missouri Supreme Court last summer, when the transfers were upheld.
“I think there are circumstances that dictate that you need to take those extra steps to advocate for your district and your constituents,” said Chris Tennill, spokesman for the Clayton School District.
The Riverview Gardens School District — the other unaccredited system that’s enduring financial difficulty resulting from student transfers — has not hired a lobbyist, a district spokeswoman said.
“It’s rare,” said Brent Ghan, with the Missouri School Boards’ Association, an advocacy organization in Jefferson City. “But if there’s a very specific issue that a school district cares a lot about, it can happen. Especially in the situation Normandy is facing.”
As Missouri legislators debate various changes to the school transfer law, McNichols, the Normandy superintendent, and other district administrators are becoming increasingly familiar faces in the Capitol.
They’ve been called to testify at hearings about changing the school transfer statute. They’ve laid out their plans to improve academics for the 3,000-student district before panels.
The district had a 17 percent fund balance before the transfer bills began rolling in. Now it is operating on about $9 million left in its savings account, Dorsey said, which state officials expect to run dry this spring. To continue paying the $15 million associated with student transfers this year, as well as keep schools open, Normandy leaders are asking for lawmakers to grant Gov. Jay Nixon’s $5 million request for help.
The district closed one elementary school and laid off 103 staff members, mostly teachers, in December to cut expenses.
Dorsey said Normandy officials need help navigating state government. Some legislators agree.
“One man, a superintendent, cannot do it alone,” said Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, who represents most of the area within the Normandy School District. He said he has no problems with district money spent on lobbying. “If that help was needed, that’s what needed.”
Jessica Bock and Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.