Price goes up as Beaufort County school board expands lobbying deal

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 21, 2014 

The Beaufort County School District says it still needs help from a lobbyist to make strides in the legislature.

So the district's contract with Columbia-based McNair Law Firm is being extended for the coming year, the Board of Education decided last week. The firm's pay will increase and so will the scope of its work.

The contract is for $37,500, up from the $25,000 the school district has paid the firm in each of the past five years.

"We sort of see this as something that has become necessary in order for there to be equity and have our needs heard, unfortunately," said board member JoAnn Orischak, co-chairwoman of the Legislative and Outreach Committee.

McNair was hired in the winter of 2009-10 to analyze legislation and proposals to change how the state allocates money to public schools. Fees paid to the firm are split between the school district and Beaufort County Council.

At that time, lobbying the General Assembly was only a small part of the firm's work on the district's behalf, former Board of Education Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said. The firm also did research and gathered information to present to lawmakers, he said.

Under the new contract, McNair will continue its work to secure equitable state funding. It also will take on possible changes to the certification rules that affect the district's Chinese language immersion program, as well as funding for early childhood education, according to current Chairman Bill Evans.

Asked if it is proper for government to spend money lobbying government, Orischak said: "For lack of a better descriptor, it's a little bit of a necessary evil, and that is the position we are in."

The district has benefited from the relationship, according to state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, particularly in helping the county's Legislative Delegation make a case for more equitable state funding.

Evans hopes McNair will have similar success in the district's attempt to increase state funding for early childhood education. The district is considering a proposal to double the size of its pre-kindergarten program within four years so that it can be offered to all 4-year-olds in the county.

But Washington, who is no longer on the school board, said he is not convinced the district should be lobbying legislators on issues that are not unique to Beaufort County's public schools.

"That's not one of those things that Beaufort County can benefit from exclusively and no one else can benefit from," he said.

Evans agreed early childhood education funding is universal among state districts; however, it is a local priority.

"I think the general feeling is that if we could get some improvement in that, it will be a real benefit to us, as well as others," he said. "It is a statewide issue, unlike some of the others, but we would just like to see McNair push forward with that where they can."

According to Davis, most of McNair's work will be to continue to gather data that help him and the other delegation members forge alliances with other legislators and identify those who might oppose their efforts.

While the firm's work is mostly doing research, Davis said, part of its job is to help persuade legislators who oppose the reforms the Beaufort County delegation seeks.

State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, said those gains for the school district could not be made without the extra help.

"Do I think public bodies ought to have to engage lobbyists or advocates? Not necessarily," said Newton, who was County Council chairman when McNair was first hired.

"But I don't know if the district or county has the expertise or staff to allocate to do the analysis and identify partners on their own. ... I think there is very much a role for (McNair) still to play."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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