In a recent legal decision provided to the Merrimack School Superintendent and Board, it has been determined that what the New Hampshire School Board Association (NHSBA) does..
a) Is lobbying.
“Dean Michener is employed by NHSBA and is a registered lobbyist. Thus, it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that NHSBA is engaged in lobbying. …it is also safe to conclude that the membership dues paid to NHSBA would be considered a contribution of funds within the meaning of RSA 15:5 (I)
RSA 15:5 prohibits use of state funds for lobbying, so the town
b) cannot use commingled monies that include state education funding to pay dues to NHSBA and up to this point, that is how they have been paying them.
These are the relevant clauses I originally posted here.
RSA 15:5 Prohibited Activities.
I. Except as provided in paragraph II, no recipient of a grant or appropriation of state funds may use the state funds to lobby or attempt to influence legislation, participate in political activity, or
II. Any recipient of a grant or appropriation of state funds that wishes to engage in any of the activities prohibited in paragraph I, or contribute funds to any entity engaged in these activities, shall segregate the state funds in such a manner that such funds are physically and financially separate from any non-state funds that may be used for any of these purposes. Mere bookkeeping separation of the state funds from other moneys shall not be sufficient.
Now the town is permitted by law to use it’s own local tax revenue to pay dues to the NHSBA but according to the decision, the town must satisfy RSA 15:5. In all future years, the town will need to open a separate account, place the dues monies in it, pay dues to the NHSBA from this account, and then close it. This process will need to be repeated in all successive year in which the district would like to continue paying dues to the NHSBA.
So how is this a win?
The goal has always been to get the district to identify these costs separately, the dues, and the cost to manage payment, as line items in their budget, where they might now receive proper scrutiny. The kind of scrutiny that a $65 million dollar annual School budget( that is insanely top heavy with wage and benefit costs) deserves in an economy where asking taxpayers to give “more” from their “less” is not exactly a great idea. Having to set up and manage a separate account puts us in compliance with the law, but it also separates the monies for dues in the process.
Having secured the decision that the NHSBA is lobbying, we also open for discussion the very topic itself. Should local taxpayers be paying dues so the school board can hire a lobbyist to lobby their elected officials in Concord on issues important to dues paying School boards around new Hampshire?
Where I begin to see some soft focus is when it comes to lobbying the Legislature. Your school district, in cooperation with a majority of all participating school districts in the state, are using taxpayer dollars to create a political block that will lobby and/or attempt to influence the General Court at your expense, for their interests. Am I skeptical? Even under the best of intentions, this creates an authority with resources and connections superior to that of any average taxpayer, who may not even know they are funding the NHSBA, for purposes I think we can all agree will tend to be to the advantage of the NHSBA membership before anything else.
This is not to say that the district nor the NHSBA will not lobby in the taxpayers interest, but how can we be sure? Do School Boards always act in the best interests of taxpayers? My initial answer is no. Most School Boards are intimidated by union negotiators and rarely dial the wage and benefits packages back. The best you can ever hope for is a flat line and a few staff cuts, but staff cuts might be worse for students while a small pay cut or shift in benefit costs could save millions.
School boards like consultants as well. This is a huge expense, one that rarely gets the proper light of day, and is certainly on the docket for future investigation in our town.
Special services are also off limits, and districts are forever looking for ways to find outside support from federal agencies regardless of the strings that come with it, while inside it seems like the goal is to get more and more kids on special services to keep the programs running. (Disclosure: I have kids on the district who have or do access special services.)
But it is a thankless job, and this still does not mean that membership in the NHSBA may not be desirable. The people in town may decide it is a good investment, but up until recently, most if not all of them had no idea they were already paying for a lobbyist, and odds are good many of you, in your towns, were unaware of this as well.
I would advise each of you to check with your respective districts (Local Superintendent or School Board) to determine if they are dues paying members of the New Hampshire School Board Association. Then ask how the dues are paid. If the money is not being segregated into a separate account and simply being paid out of general funds (in which state and local money is commingled), then your district is violating RSA 15:5 and needs to do something different to comply with state law.
That something might be setting up the separate account, or they could just scrap the whole deal and put that money toward educating students instead. But nothign happens until you start asking some questions.
So what would a large victory be? Cutting the spending.
H/T Gary Krupp, Merrimack, who has lead the quest to clarify the effort in determining if we were in violation of the RSA and in seeking a legal decision on the proper method for complying with State law.