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Troubled Missouri School Pays For Lobbying

CHRIS BLANK, Associated Press
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — An unaccredited St. Louis-area school district facing possible bankruptcy could pay as much as $130,000 for lobbying efforts while urging Missouri lawmakers to approve a financial rescue.

The Normandy School District agreed to pay a $90,000 retainer in monthly installments for lobbyists and could spend up to $40,000 more to hire additional consultants according to a document obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request. The costs have sparked concern from some state lawmakers who would have a vote in deciding whether to approve money for the school district.

About 1,000 students have transferred under a state law requiring unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation costs for students to attend a nearby higher-performing school system. Normandy previously was financially stable but now is spending through its reserves while paying transfer costs and to educate roughly 3,000 remaining students.

Gov. Jay Nixon has proposed a $5 million budget infusion aimed at preventing Normandy from running out of money this spring. That aid would require legislative approval.

Among the lobbyists representing Normandy is Andy Blunt, the brother of former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt.

School districts in Missouri typically get their funding through a combination of state and local taxes. Normandy spokeswoman Daphne Dorsey said the district understands there could be hesitancy or questions about working with a lobbying group but said it has helped provide access that the school system normally would not have. Other school districts also have lobbyists.

“We’re seeking help. We’re doing what any other corporate entity or corporation would do if they need help within the state Legislature,” Dorsey said. “If we don’t create a voice to fight for ourselves, then who’s going to do it?”

Dorsey said Normandy has been able to explain the effects of the transfer law and give information to lawmakers. One fact Normandy has noted is that more than 200 children have moved into the district, then transferred elsewhere. She said the district is doing everything it can to regain state accreditation and is being hampered by costs tied to transfers.

Normandy said it has not yet paid lobbying costs. The district has trimmed spending, eliminating 103 positions and closing an elementary school. If it becomes insolvent, the State Board of Education would assign students to other school systems, and a likely scenario would be to keep students in their current buildings but shift management to new districts.

Senate Appropriations Committee member Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said the lobbyist expenses seem “excessive.”

“A school district that would pay $135,000 for a lobbyist to get $5 million deserves to go bankrupt,” Schaaf said.

Rep. Steve Cookson, chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, questioned whether schools should spend money for lobbying. He said Normandy’s financial difficulties magnify the concern. Cookson said he has met at the state Capitol with Normandy’s superintendent and two lobbyists.

“Tax dollars and resources should be utilized for students’ benefits in a classroom setting,” said Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff.

Normandy’s lobbying agreement is with Jefferson City law firm Schreiman, Rackers, Francka & Blunt. The agreement states Normandy wants consultant services in connection with the district’s objective to “work with the state of Missouri to find a legislative branch and/or executive branch solution to the challenges facing Normandy resulting from their lack of state accreditation.”

Blunt is listed as the lead consultant, and Jay Reichard is named as a member of the government relations team also providing services.

In addition, Missouri Ethics Commission records list Ginger Steinmetz as representing Normandy.
 
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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