Four school districts—Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Bixby, and Jenks—spent nearly $200,000 combined in taxpayer funding on contract lobbyists during the 2018-2019 school year, records show.
Those lobbyists were hired even as the four districts were also paying thousands more to a range of organizations that employ numerous other lobbyists on behalf of the school districts.
That school tax dollars are being expended on contract lobbyists has raised a host of concerns, and critics of the practice include Gov. Kevin Stitt, who issued an executive order this year that banned similar practices at state agencies.
“If a state agency or a school district is using taxpayer dollars to hire a lobbyist, I’m absolutely against it,” Stitt said in an interview. “If I found out that the school districts are using taxpayer dollars to hire lobbyists, 100 percent I’m going to call them out on it. I’m going to share with Oklahomans what’s happening. It’s just counterproductive. What are they lobbying for? We have the best interests of our children at heart, and to hire a lobbyist to monitor legislation or use tax dollars to muddy the water at the Capitol, I just don’t see it as being productive.”
The Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts each hired lobbyist Margaret Erling for $50,000 and $75,000, respectively. Bixby and Jenks each hired former state Rep. Fred Jordan, a Jenks Republican who is now a contract lobbyist. Both districts paid Jordan $36,000 annually. All four contracts ran from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019.
One criticism of such taxpayer-funded lobbying contracts is that they result in parts of the executive branch working at cross purposes. A focus of Stitt’s term in office has been to unify executive branch authority.
“If a state agency or a school district is using taxpayer dollars to hire a lobbyist, I’m absolutely against it.”
—Gov. Kevin Stitt
Benjamin M. Lepak, a legal fellow with the 1889 Institute, a non-profit education and research organization that promotes limited government, says schools’ hiring of contract lobbyists can result in contradictory messages being sent by executive branch entities.
“There’s been a lot of focus on the cost, which I think is a misplaced focus,” Lepak said. “Because to me the real issue is, is the executive branch speaking with one voice to the Legislature and pursuing a unified policy?”
Lepak said the use of outside lobbyists by school districts and state agencies makes it more difficult for citizens to “hold the government accountable.” If an agency or school district works at cross-purposes with the head of the executive branch, it can stymie the will of the voters. While voters can change the chief executive—the governor—that doesn’t mean they change state policies when agencies or school districts are free to ignore the chief executive and use contract lobbyists to oppose his or her efforts.
“As a matter of democratic legitimacy, as a citizen, you have less power that way,” Lepak said. “And I think the lobbying is part and parcel of that.”
In addition to hiring contract lobbyists, the four districts also reported paying thousands to other lobbying entities that represent those schools before legislators at the Oklahoma Capitol, including the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA), the United Suburban Schools Association (USSA), and chambers of commerce.
While those groups offer a variety of services, lobbying is a major focus for all. Ethics Commission records show five people are registered lobbyists for OSSBA, two individuals lobby on behalf of CCOSA, one individual is a registered lobbyist for USSA, seven people are registered to lobby for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, and six people are registered lobbyists for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
While the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration is touted as a private organization whose members are school administrators, many superintendents’ contracts explicitly require their employer district to either directly pay for CCOSA membership or reimburse administrators for dues. OSSBA’s members are all members of school boards, and all membership payments come from school coffers.
In addition to hiring a contract lobbyist, Oklahoma City school officials reported paying more than $7,000 to other lobbying entities in the last year: $845 to CCOSA; $1,065 to the Greater OKC Chamber, and $5,100 to the OSSBA.
Tulsa Public Schools reported paying nearly $7,200 to lobbying entities: $5,100 to OSSBA, $385 to CCOSA, and $1,712 to the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
Jenks reported paying nearly $12,000 to three lobbying entities that represent the district: $4,600 for OSSBA membership; $6,552 for membership in CCOSA, and $788 for membership in the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
Bixby reported paying $13,310 to lobbying entities: $9,160 to OSSBA; $1,650 to the United Suburban Schools Association; and $2,500 to CCOSA.
The use of contract lobbyists by school districts also raises campaign-finance issues. Because school districts use taxpayer money to hire contract lobbyists, and those lobbyists then make contributions to legislators’ political campaigns, critics say schools’ use of contract lobbyists can become an indirect funnel for taxpayer money to land in politicians’ campaign coffers.
That concern is raised by people on all parts of the political spectrum.
“When states and localities use government contracts to hire lobbyists, they frequently then turn around and use some of that money to donate to these same politicians’ campaigns. This can create a revolving door of sorts in which taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars are used by lobbyists for unintended purposes,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at the non-partisan government watchdog Common Cause. “This is actually one area where the federal government, which prohibits agencies from hiring lobbyists, has stronger standards than do states and localities. States and localities where this frequently occurs should explore ways to limit this harmful practice.”
Lepak said the issue of indirect funneling of taxpayer money to campaigns is “a really legitimate concern.”
“You have a state agency using taxpayer money to hire a lobbyist. Lobbyists make political contributions,” Lepak said. “So has the taxpayer essentially funded political campaigns? They’re not making the donation on behalf of the agency, per se, but …”
Records show that lobbyists hired by school districts, both directly and indirectly, have made substantial contributions to political campaigns. According to Ethics Commission records, Erling contributed $24,800 in cash, and $759 in in-kind contributions to political candidates and entities from Jan. 1, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2019. Jordan contributed $8,709 during that same time period.
Lobbyists indirectly hired by school districts through membership organizations also gave money to political candidates. Registered lobbyists for the Tulsa Regional Chamber gave $114,250 (excluding Erling, who was a registered lobbyist for the Tulsa chamber as well as the two school districts). Lobbyists for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber gave $28,598. OSSBA lobbyists gave $2,500. CCOSA lobbyists gave $8,650, and the lobbyist for USSA gave $1,100.
Separately, the Oklahoma City and Tulsa chambers also ran political action committees that distributed $62,500 and $120,500 to political candidates and entities in the last election cycle, respectively.
School officials reject any suggestion that their hiring of lobbyists effectively siphons taxpayer money to campaigns.
“We do not have any conversations with Mister Jordan about his contributions to any campaigns,” said Stacey Butterfield, superintendent of Jenks Public Schools.
“We have a very clearly written contract with a very explicit scope of work for our lobbyists,” said Paula Shannon, deputy superintendent for Tulsa Public Schools. “And so I think that the dollar amount of the contract matches up very well for the scope of work.”
Shannon added, “On a broader level, anyone can make candidate donations. That’s a protected First Amendment right.”
Officials with the Oklahoma City school district declined repeated requests for comment, but a spokesman noted in an email that the district’s contract for lobbying “expired June 30, 2019 and was not renewed for FY 20.” Similarly, Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller declined an interview request, but emailed, “Bixby Schools are no longer contracted with Fred Jordan. Our most recent contract expired on June 30 and was not renewed by the Board of Education.”
Another issue appears to have sprung up when Jenks and Bixby hired Jordan as their lobbyist. The Jenks’ contract includes a provision stating that “no funds paid to Jordan through the Contract are derived or received from appropriated funds from the State of Oklahoma.” The Bixby contract contains similar language.
The Oklahoma Constitution bars former legislators from receiving jobs paid with state appropriations for two years after they leave the Legislature. Because of restrictions on federal school funds, the no-appropriation provision of Jordan’s contract suggests he was paid, at least for bookkeeping purposes, with money generated by local property taxes.
School officials have generally opposed using property taxes to boost pay for other school employees, particularly teachers.