By Madelynn Coldiron
Given the overall political climate and the usual drama during a legislative session, it would be perfectly normal for a school board member to register surprise after her inaugural lobbying effort in Frankfort.
But it’s not what you think.
Berea Independent school board member Linda Wagers, her board’s designated KSBA legislative contact, said she expected platitudes from the two lawmakers she talked with in February, but was pleasantly surprised.
Photo: Oldham County school board and KSBA board member Larry Dodson, left and Oldham County board Vice Chairman Walt Schumm meet with their state representative, David Osborne (R-Prospect) during KSBA’s Kids First Advocacy Day at the Capitol.
“I was impressed when we met with our senator and representative and the fact that they asked questions of us, instead of them having all the answers – the fact that they wanted to know what were our concerns,” she said. “Both made us feel very comfortable and both seemed appreciative.”
Wagers is one of more than 80 board members who are their board’s legislative contacts – a roster that plays a key role in the grassroots network that works with KSBA’s Governmental Relations staff, who would like every board to designate a contact.
The roster was shorter a couple of years ago. After retooling the process the KSBA board uses to develop a legislative agenda, the focus turned to doubling down on another facet of advocacy: grassroots lobbying. The board members who are designated to serve a two-year term as their board’s legislative contact are key to that effort. They also keep their boards informed of state and national legislative developments.
KSBA Governmental Relations Director Shannon Stiglitz said she has increased communications with the board legislative contacts, particularly during General Assembly sessions. While in the past superintendents might have appointed themselves as a contact, this year Stiglitz specified that the contact must be a board member, though superintendents still receive the same information.
“That really is a team approach, that we have both voices involved in the process,” she explained. “We want ultimately those legislative contacts and their superintendent to be the face and voice of education that legislators lean on.”
These efforts have combined with concern about education funding to increase local board members’ interest in advocacy, Stiglitz said.
“There’s such a renewed interest in the legislative process because they are so dependent on what happens in the state budget, mandates that are passed. I think school board members are really paying attention to the process now,” she said.
Stiglitz has seen an increase in the calls and emails she has received from board members during the 2012 session. In addition, a record number participated in KSBA’s Kids First Advocacy Conference and Lobbying Day, Feb. 23-24.
Pointers from the trenches
Fulton Independent board vice chairman and longtime legislative contact Bill Robertson says he has learned to organize his thoughts and write down his points before he meets with legislators to avoid wasting their time.
“The first few years, I would just ramble and that’s not good. They don’t like that, either. And if you’re not careful, they will take over the conversation and when you leave, you’ll find that you haven’t accomplished anything and then they’ve got you out of their hair,” he said.
Joseph Payne, the Adair County school board’s legislative contact, cautioned against expecting instant results: “The wheels of change turn awful slow – you have to have patience and resolve in order to try to accomplish your means.”
Robertson agrees there are limits to a board member’s influence. He and Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Winters, both graduates of Murray State University’s industrial arts program, are “fairly close,” he said, but don’t always agree.
“Ken will see my side of the story but he’s looking at a bigger picture than I am. As a school board member, you’re concerned about your students and their welfare and he’s concerned about all the students – and I am, too. But our kids come first in my book,” he said.
Anderson County board Vice Chairman James Sargent grew up with former Gov. Julian Carroll’s son and has been around politics since he was young. He also has worked as a professional lobbyist.
His advice to school board legislative contacts?
“You have to educate the person you’re talking to about what you’re talking about. You may be talking about Bill 31, but they may not know exactly what that is as well as how it affects people,” he said.
Bardstown Independent board member Jennifer Shrewsbury is sharing legislative contact duties with fellow board member and longtime education advocate Margie Bradford, who is mentoring her.
She follows legislative developments via KSBA’s Facebook and Twitter pages and also reads information Stiglitz provides.
Having a designated legislative contact on a school board ensures that board members have a state and national perspective, Shrewsbury said.
“As a board member you have so many issues going on and so many hot topics that it’s really nice to have one person keep you abreast of the legislature and what is going on so they can report back to the board,” she explained. “I feel it can be easily overshadowed by the other issues the board has on a monthly basis.”