Lawrence school board members agreed this week to start working more independently on legislative issues at the Kansas Statehouse, but they stopped short of talking about hiring their own lobbyist.
The discussion Monday night came on the heels of a highly public split in February between the local board and its main advocacy group, the Kansas Association of School Boards, over the issue of collective bargaining rights for teachers.
KASB had taken a neutral position this year on a bill to limit teachers' bargaining rights, a move that infuriated many teachers union members. The Lawrence board, however, voted in February to send its own letter to legislative leaders expressing unequivocal support for collective bargaining.
The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee eventually tabled the bill, with an agreement that the committee would work with education groups this summer and fall to come up with a compromise bill to be considered next year.
This week, the Lawrence board opened a larger discussion about lobbying positions when it was asked to approve two normally routine agenda items: paying the annual membership dues for KASB and its Legal Assistance Fund.
Although the board eventually approved paying those dues, totaling $15,624, board member Keith Diaz Moore asked to pull them from the consent agenda so they could be discussed separately.
"It's not so much that I don't want us to pay them," he said. "It's just to take a moment of pause, a little bit."
"KASB is our advocacy group as it talks with the state Legislature," he said. "Since it appears as though there will be active discussions over the next year (about the collective bargaining bill), I'm just wondering if we want to have a bit of a conversation of how we think we might have influence, or the role we need to play in terms of communicating our position."
School board president Vanessa Sanburn agreed with Moore, saying the Lawrence board should not necessarily follow KASB on all legislative issues.
"One of the things I think might be helpful is rather than just looking over the KASB agenda, our board might come up with our own legislative agenda, and have that be an item that we want to consider discussing at the beginning of next year's legislative session," Sanburn said.
KASB is a membership organizations that represents school boards. When its members meet every year to decide on a legislative agenda, each school board has one vote, regardless of whether it's the Wichita school district with more than 50,000 students, or the Healy school district with only 74 students.
Many larger school districts, however, have their own lobbyists at the Statehouse who work independently of KASB, although they are often in agreement on key issues.
Lawrence, in fact, is the largest school district in Kansas without its own lobbyist. The six larger districts — Wichita, Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Kansas City and Topeka — all either employ a full-time lobbyist on staff or contract with a professional lobbying firm to represent their interests at the Statehouse.
Sanburn said the Lawrence board has not considered hiring its own lobbyist, mainly because of the cost.