In the last school year four Oklahoma districts paid nearly $200,000 combined to contract lobbyists despite already spending thousands more for membership in other organizations that formally lobby on their behalf.
Officials at the Tulsa and Jenks districts defend the use of contract lobbyists, saying statewide organizations such as the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) are not always well positioned to advocate for specific schools.
“We do participate in OSSBA and CCOSA, and I’d say that those organizations represent 500-plus districts in the state of Oklahoma, and we are one of two large, urban districts,” said Paula Shannon, deputy superintendent for Tulsa Public Schools. “We have our own unique needs and deal with many issues that are quite different from the majority of suburban and rural districts in the state of Oklahoma. So we oftentimes find that our legislative agenda is a bit different.”
As an example, she noted Tulsa Public Schools is authorized to sponsor charter schools, and said that is an area where Tulsa’s needs are different than other schools. She also said the school’s contract lobbyist helped the district with the school’s Tulsa Teacher Corps, a preparation program for aspiring teachers.
During the 2018-2019 school year, records show 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.
In addition to hiring contract lobbyists, the four districts also reported paying thousands to other lobbying entities that represent those schools before state legislators, 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.
Those organizations, combined, have almost a platoon of lobbyists who represent member schools at the Oklahoma Capitol each session. 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.
But school officials say a contract lobbyist provides greater value because the lobbyist is representing just one district.
“The Tulsa Chamber and CCOSA and OSSBA, they have multiple groups and entities that they are representing, and Mister Jordan is able to focus more on our specific needs, if we should have those, and advocate for those needs,” said Stacey Butterfield, superintendent of Jenks Public Schools.
While school officials suggest there is occasional disconnect between groups like OSSBA and local districts, it’s notable that three of the schools that have hired contract lobbyists also have a vocal presence in the OSSBA organization. Oklahoma City school board member Mark Mann, Tulsa school board member Ruth Ann Fate, and Jenks school board member Melissa Abdo are all listed as regional directors of OSSBA on the group’s website.
Butterfield said Jenks school officials opted to hire a contract lobbyist to ensure the superintendent is “in the district and not down at the Capitol as much.” She described Jordan’s lobbying work as largely informational, saying he makes presentations to the school’s finance committee, “works with our classroom teachers’ association,” and meets with a select group of administrators quarterly and the superintendent’s cabinet, a group of six Jenks employees, once a month. Once a year, Jordan also presents a report to the school board.
“It’s not just about him being at the Capitol and working on legislative bills for us,” Butterfield said. “It’s about us learning and him being actually in the district and providing information here as well.”
Jenks Chief Information Officer Bonnie Rogers said school employees who wish to voice their opinions on legislation are expected to contact legislators on their own personal time using their own personal email accounts.
“Our role as educators is to simply provide information and educate people about the issues,” Butterfield said. “It is not to advocate one way or the other. And that’s what Miss Rogers is saying. If we’re advocating one way or another on a bill, we need to be doing that on our own time as individuals.”
However, Jordan’s contract suggests his work includes seeking the passage of certain bills and the defeat of others. The contract states that Jordan will work with the school “to promote or defend” the district’s “governmental and legislative strategy needs.”
Erling’s contract with Tulsa Public Schools is even more explicit, stating that her job is to assist “in introducing, revising and/or eliminating legislation as requested by TPS.”
Officials with the Oklahoma City and Bixby school districts declined comment, other than to say that district contracts with outside lobbyists were not renewed this year.