EBR school district wants liaison for Legislature

With just days left before the Louisiana Legislature convenes, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is seeking a lobbying firm to try to make its case that it should be spared further expenses and cuts in school funding and not be carved up further into independent school districts.

The School Board has given Superintendent Bernard Taylor the green light to find a “governmental relations service” for the next 12 months to represent the school system, which with almost 43,000 students is one of the largest in Louisiana.

The school system remains the dominant public school district in the parish despite the loss of Baker, Central and Zachary, all cities which successfully broke away and formed their own school districts over the past decade.

“We have not moved forward with a selection, but we are seeking candidates,” school system spokeswoman Susan Nelson said Monday.

On March 21, Taylor told the board he wants to get someone who can start work soon before the Legislature convenes on April 8.

“For a small investment of money, we could save literally millions,” Taylor told the board.

The board voted 10-0 for the motion. Only board member Jill Dyason abstained.

How much that investment will be is unclear. The board did not set a cap, with the idea of not signaling what how much the school system is willing to pay.

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

Earlier this year, the school system hired Nelson to serve in the revamped job, interim executive director of communications and external relations; one of her new duties is to “engage in governmental advocacy and legislative affairs on the district’s behalf.”

Taylor told the School Board that he needs more: A full-time representative. He noted that both Rutledge and Nelson have full-time jobs.

Taylor, who testified to the Legislature last spring before he even officially started in June, recalled Rutledge’s many hours of work.

“I watched this gentleman literally wear himself out last year,” Taylor said.

Taylor said other public entities in Louisiana hire people to represent their interests with the state government, and East Baton Rouge Parish schools need to get with the times.

“This has become the cost of doing business,” he added.

Both Rutledge and Nelson have ties to the state Democratic Party and plan to continue to talk to lawmakers on that side of the aisle. They are seeking to hire a firm with ties to Republican officeholders, who dominate the Legislature and most of state government.

“We have one side covered; now we need the other,” said board member Connie Bernard, a leader in the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party.

Susan Nelson, a former communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, said she understands the move.

“My résumé reads likes a Who’s Who of the Democratic Party,” she said.

Board President David Tatman is a registered lobbyist and views the school system move as long overdue. To avoid any potential ethical issues, the motion approved Thursday calls for Tatman to not be involved with the hiring process.

Mary Juneau pleaded with the board to vote in favor of the idea. She is a parent of a child in the school system and a founder of the parent group, One Community, One School District, which formed last year to oppose the proposed Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District.

Last year, the group circulated a petition against the breakaway district legislation that garnered more than 900 signatures. Leaders spent a lot of time calling lawmakers and visiting the State Capitol last year.

“We’re moms. We’re not professional lobbyists,” Juneau said.

The money to pay the lobbying firm will come out of “comprehensive marketing campaign” for the school system that Nelson was about to start.

On March 18, Nelson sent out a request for proposals, or RFP, to professionals or companies to “launch new district initiatives and to complement new branding for the district.”

Two days later, Nelson withdrew the RFP. It said there was $68,000 available for professional services and another $217,000 for advertising

Editor’s note: The article was changed on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 to correct the last name of East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Connie Bernard.