Education

Should the Anchorage School Board hire a lobbyist?

The Anchorage School Board started conversations Thursday about its priorities for the upcoming legislative session and whether it should hire a lobbyist to send to Juneau.

The state's largest school district has historically not employed a lobbyist, instead relying on the superintendent and board members to advocate on its behalf at the Capitol in Juneau. And it doesn't appear that advocacy will change soon. School Board member Starr Marsett asked the Board during Thursday's work session if it wanted to hire a lobbyist, but received no direct answers during the meeting.

"In tight budget times it's hard to justify doing something that we potentially are able to do," School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler said after the meeting. She said she heard no directive from the Board to continue the conversation about hiring a full-time lobbyist, so the idea is likely dead.

The Anchorage School Board last hired a lobbyist in 2013, but only on a short-term, $15,000 contract, said Heidi Embley, school district spokeswoman. Years ago, the district had a government relations employee who traveled to Juneau on its behalf, but that job ended in 2006, she said.

Ten Alaska school districts hired lobbyists this year, who joined the fleet of lobbyists jockeying for new laws and state funds. The Northwest Arctic Borough School District, based in Kotzebue, employed three lobbyists, paying them a total of $84,000 by the end of July, according to lobbyist reports filed with Alaska Public Offices Commission.

"This district has had lobbyists working with them for a long time. It's been a tradition up here," said Annmarie O'Brien, Northwest Arctic Borough School District's superintendent. "I can say that we have been able to really gather a lot of support for developing our infrastructure."

O'Brien said the lobbyists each have different strengths and have helped the district get state money for capital projects. Between 2010 and 2014, the district secured state funding for the Northwest Magnet School and Kotzebue High School residential program. She said lobbyists also keep the district abreast of education bills as they move through the Legislature.

"It's just too much for a superintendent to do," she said.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has paid its lobbyist about $44,000 so far this year and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has paid its lobbyist just over $30,000, according to APOC reports. Anchorage School District's new superintendent, Deena Paramo, came from the Mat-Su district. She said after Thursday's meeting that the lobbyist was hired by her Board, not her.

"I would say that they felt it was successful for them," she said.

Marsett said the idea of a lobbyist stemmed from the Board's communications committee, which she chairs. She said the committee discussed the district's $32,000 annual membership fee that it pays to the Coalition for Education Equity of Alaska and whether it would be beneficial to use that money to pay for a lobbyist.

"We're trying to think outside the box," she said.

During Thursday's Anchorage School Board meeting, Board members floated several other ideas for having their voices heard in Juneau, including partnering with the municipality of Anchorage to lobby for the restoration of school bond debt reimbursement. (In 2016, the municipality of Anchorage had three registered lobbyists. Together, their annual fees totaled $200,000, according to APOC.)

The Board named restoring school bond debt reimbursement Thursday as one of its potential top priorities going into the next legislative session. It also listed restoring pupil transportation funding and per-pupil funding, as well as preventing cuts to pre-kindergarten funding. Board members said they would like the district to determine what amount represents "adequate funding" so they can bring that amount to legislators.

Alaska school districts and their lobbyists in 2016:

Below is a list of lobbyists registered with the state of Alaska and their compensations, compiled from their APOC registration filings.

Alaska Gateway School District (Tok):
• David Stancliff, annual fee: $9,500

Bering Strait School District (Unalakleet):
• John Walsh, annual fee: $22,000

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (Fairbanks):
• John Ringstad, annual fee: $36,000

Galena City School District (Galena):
• Kent Dawson, annual fee: $51,000

Lower Kuskokwim School District (Bethel):
• Jerry Reinwand, annual fee: $30,000

Lower Yukon School District (Mountain Village):
• John Walsh, annual fee: $25,000

Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District (Palmer):
• Eldon Mulder, monthly fee: $6,250

North Slope Borough School District (Barrow):
• Braxton Jeans, annual fee: $40,000

Northwest Arctic Borough School District (Kotzebue):
• Bruce Baker, monthly fee: $7,000
• Wendy Chamberlain, annual fee: $45,000
• Braxton Jeans, annual fee: $30,000

Yukon-Koyukuk School District (Fairbanks):
• Braxton Jeans, annual fee: $30,000

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.

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