EBR school district hires lobbyists to fight breakaway plan

As it seeks to defeat a proposal to create a new breakaway school district in southeast Baton Rouge, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has hired two lobbying firms to represent its interests in the Legislature, a district spokeswoman said Friday.

Spradley & Spradley, a Baton Rouge-based firm led by partners Tom and Linda Spradley, has a one-year contract, while Southern Strategy Group, a firm with offices in Baton Rouge and throughout the South, will wrap up its work soon after the current legislative session, which ends June 6, said Susan Nelson, interim director for communications and external relations for the parish school system.

Both firms are also dealing with other legislative matters as they arise, but Spradley & Spradley will focus on issues that come before the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Nelson said.

The cost of both contracts is $62,000, and both firms started working soon after the legislative session began April 6, Nelson said. The money is coming from Nelson’s department.

She said she has shelved for now a plan to hire an outside firm to develop a marketing campaign for the school system.

In years past, the school system has relied on board members and school leaders, particularly Domoine Rutledge, general counsel, to advocate for the district before the Legislature.

Earlier this year, when Nelson was hired, her position was revamped, with one of her new duties being to “engage in governmental advocacy and legislative affairs on the district’s behalf.” Both Rutledge and Nelson have longstanding ties with the state Democratic Party.

The School Board on March 21, at the urging of Superintendent Bernard Taylor, decided it needed to go further and hire a professional lobbying firm.

Nelson said the decision to hire two firms, rather than one, arose as school system officials looked at the strengths of the different firms. Spradley & Spradley, she said, has ties with Republicans and with BESE, while the Southern Strategy Group has better ties with Democrats.

While Nelson and Rutledge know many Democratic Party leaders, they do not have the same level of connection that a lobbying firm has, she said.

“I have my people, Domoine has his people, and now we have more coverage with Southern Strategy and Spradley & Spradley have connections with their people,” Nelson said.

The breakaway school district effort by some residents of southeast Baton Rouge could take with it 10 schools as well as several thousand students. East Baton Rouge Parish school officials also contend that the new school district would prove a financial drain and hurt the education of the students remaining in the system. Supporters of the breakaway district said they’ve already dealt with those concerns.

A similar effort in 2012 came just four votes shy of clearing the state House of Representatives. If the Legislature agrees this time, a constitutional amendment would go on the ballot in fall 2014, meaning a new school district could start no sooner than fall 2015.

If approved, the new school district would be the fourth in the parish; the cities of Baker, Zachary and Central have their own districts.