Tennessee public schools use taxpayer money for lobbyists to boost self-interests

Tennessee public schools use taxpayer money for lobbyists to boost self-interests

Certain public school systems in Tennessee are using taxpayer money to hire lobbyists who push items those same taxpayers may not like, state records show.

Justin Owen, president of the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank, is taking issue with the practice.

“I think if taxpayers were aware their education dollars were being taken out of the classroom and spent on lobbyists, then they would have a lot of heartburn about that,” Owen said.

“The people in education will use this money to try to expand the scope of their power. They will fight to increase spending. They will fight, in some cases, to impose higher taxes.”

Melissa Tindell (photo courtesy of LinkedIn)

Melissa Tindell (photo courtesy of LinkedIn)

As reported, the Tennessee School Boards Association hates charter schools and school vouchers. According to the TSBA’s most recent lobbying expenditures — available on the Tennessee Ethics Commission’s website — the group spent about $10,000 on two lobbyists.

Three similar organizations in Tennessee basically follow suit, according to state records.

The Tennessee School System for Equity, which represents rural school districts, spent between $25,000 to $50,000 this past year on two lobbyists. The Coalition of Large Area School Systems, representing the Hamilton, Shelby and Knox county school systems, as well as Metro-Nashville Schools, paid somewhere between $50,000 to $100,000 for two lobbyists.

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The Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents, meanwhile, shelled out between $10,000 and $25,000 in taxpayer money for five lobbyists.

Owen told Tennessee Watchdog school system officials should march to Nashville and lobby on their own. They should not use taxpayer money to hire others to lobby for them.

“I think taxpayers should question whether they should be hiring lobbyists to go to Nashville and do those things with dollars that otherwise could be spent in the classroom,” Owen said.

“There’s nothing wrong with local governments, including education officials, lobbying those state legislatures, but it should be those school board officials and superintendents themselves who are making their voices heard.”

Lobbyists, Owen said, get results but “tend to focus more on what’s best for the adults more than on what’s best for the children.”

Three of the four groups did not return repeated requests for comment.

An unidentified spokesperson for the Metro-Nashville public school system, which belongs to CLASS, said in an email the organization educates lawmakers regarding how specific legislation affects public schools.

Melissa Tindell, spokeswoman for the Knox County Schools, said each member school system pays CLASS $37,500 per year in retainers.

Justin Owen (photo by Chris Butler)

Justin Owen (photo by Chris Butler)

“For the Knox County Schools, this fee is appropriated through our general purpose fund budget,” Tindell said in an email.

“The Knox County Schools believes this organization provides a valuable service to our elected Board of Education members and our constituents. Each year we meet to align with our large area school systems around the priorities that have been largely communicated by our stakeholders.”

Tindell and the spokesperson for the Nashville Public Schools would not say what they think about taxpayers objecting to this practice.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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