A parent watchdog group is criticizing the San Diego Unified School District for spending tens of thousands of dollars — including some coronavirus relief money — on a federal lobbying firm.
In April, the school board hired The Raben Group of Washington, D.C., with a contract worth up to $150,000 to advocate for more school stimulus funding, advance the district’s interests among federal lawmakers and raise the district’s “profile as a leader,” according to the contract.
On Jan. 26, the board unanimously approved another contract with Raben for up to $180,000 for this year.
The district says its investment in federal lobbying has been fruitful, helping to secure tens of millions of dollars in additional coronavirus relief money that will be used to help students.
Reopen SDUSD, a parent group that has criticized the district for not reopening schools during the pandemic, obtained a spreadsheet of the district’s coronavirus relief spending and noted that the district used $37,500 of coronavirus relief money to pay Raben.
“I don’t know what emergency-related charge justifies paying for a lobbyist,” said Emily Diaz, a member of Reopen SDUSD.
The district is recategorizing the expenditure as part of an annual review of expenses, so it will be paid with general unrestricted funds instead of coronavirus funds, spokeswoman Maureen Magee said in an email.
“The Raben Group was brought on to help respond to the COVID-19 crisis early in the pandemic, and because it was an emergency situation, emergency funding was used,” Magee said. “However, Finance determined that ongoing costs associated with Raben should be processed as other district advocacy contracts … have been.”
Magee added that the lobbying spending did not delay or financially impact other district programs because it has enough money for such expenditures.
“Because the Raben Group expenditures are a fraction of 1 percent of district spending, this change has no financial impact on the district one way or another,” Magee said.
San Diego Unified spent $120,000 on federal lobbying last year, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Senate. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which also uses Raben, spent $80,000.
The latest two years that San Diego Unified previously spent money on lobbying the federal government was 2013 and 2003, when it spent $5,000 and $20,000, respectively.
San Diego Unified, a district of 100,000 students, has an annual budget of $1.6 billion.
The district more regularly spends money on lobbying the state, which provides the majority of San Diego Unified’s funding. The district spent $219,753 lobbying at the state level during the 2019-20 legislative session, according to the secretary of state’s office.
The district employs a director of governmental relations who is based in Sacramento. The district also has an up to $100,000 contract with School Services of California for state advocacy services.
It is not uncommon for school districts, especially large ones, to lobby, said Dan Auble, senior researcher for the Center for Responsible Politics.
He said he doesn’t know if lobbying is an allowable use of CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) funding. Generally, federal contractors are prohibited from spending their contract money on lobbying, he said.
“So there is precedent for the idea that it is not productive to turn federal dollars around and spend them in the D.C. influence industry trying to get more,” Auble said in an email. “One would think there are more effective ways to spend coronavirus relief funds to provide more direct help in the local area.”
The results of advocacy
San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, board President Richard Barrera, former board President John Lee Evans, Director of Government Relations Enrique Ruacho and Chief Public Information Officer Andrew Sharp also advocated to the federal government on behalf of the district, Barrera said.
The federal lobbying has paid off in several ways, according to district officials.
The district credits its advocacy efforts for getting $54.9 billion for K-12 schools nationwide in the second COVID-19 federal relief package, including an estimated $119 million for San Diego Unified. Barrera has said that will help bridge the district’s previously projected $155 million budget deficit for next school year.
The district says its lobbying helped persuade federal officials to extend reimbursements for public schools nationwide to provide free meals to all children. San Diego Unified has been able to provide 30 percent more free meals, including weekend meals, than it would have if federal officials did not extend the reimbursements, Magee said.
Barrera said The Raben Group also helped San Diego Unified prepare and distribute a seven-page education policy proposal that Marten sent to President Joe Biden’s transition team in November, a proposal that Marten featured in her annual State of the District address.
The proposal called for $350 billion in direct COVID-19 funding to schools, $12 billion more Title I funding for disadvantaged students, full funding of special education for children with disabilities, more money for military families and students, funding for early childhood education and a national teacher corps program.
The proposal also touted San Diego Unified as a diverse district that has “essentially closed the digital divide, provided millions of free meals and delivered more instructional minutes than similar districts across California and the nation.” The proposal noted that San Diego Unified has outperformed large school districts in national test scores, raised college readiness rates for all students and has been highlighted for student success in reports by the Learning Policy Institute and UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools.
“We believe our unique approach and accomplishments can be of value as you consider moving quickly on policy to assist our schools across the nation,” Marten wrote to the Biden team.
District officials sent the letter to Biden because they believed other national education proposals were focusing too much on technology rather than giving students more time and attention from teachers, Ruacho said in an email.
“The goal in highlighting the success of our work is to convince national leaders that it is worth investing in public education,” Ruacho said.
Now, Biden’s team has nominated her to be U.S. deputy education secretary.
Reopen SDUSD noted the timing of Marten’s nomination, following the district’s federal advocacy efforts.
“We are definitely questioning if there’s a link between the lobbying — even indirectly — and the nomination,” Diaz said.
Barrera said it’s “way out of line” and “categorically false” to suggest that Marten may have been picked with help from lobbying. He said district officials never discussed with Raben the idea of Marten having a federal position.
“It has been entirely advocacy focused on the needs of our district and the needs of students in our district,” Barrera said.
Marten will stay with the district until the Senate confirms her nomination, which is expected next month. ◆