Florida Virtual School pays real money to lobbyists

Florida Virtual School

Last year, the Florida Virtual School – the state’s online education institution – agreed to hire two of Tallahassee’s top lobbying firms for $180,000 a year.

On Wednesday, the Florida Board of Education dumped the lobbyists, saying the state now plans to do the lobbying work in-house.

The Florida Virtual School is part of the state’s public education system. But instead of brick-and-mortar classrooms, the Orlando-based school offers online classes to more than 200,000 students each year.

The decision to let the lobbyists go came after Tom Grady, a member of the state education panel, asked what Rubin Turnbull & Associates and the Southern Strategy Group had done to earn their fees. Rubin was being paid $120,000 in tax dollars a year, while Southern Strategy was earning $60,000.

“We figure it’s probably better to use in-house folks to take care of that, if there are any actual lobbying needs for the Florida Virtual School. We’re better doing that than spending $180,000 on contracts,” Louis Algaze, the newly appointed head of the virtual school, told Grady.

Asked what specific lobbying needs the school had, Algaze said there are some issues but “whether it’s to that extent (of the lobbying contracts), I’m not so sure that that’s necessary.”

“In the past year, did Southern Strategies or the Rubin group actually perform any services that were unique in favor of Florida Virtual School?” Grady asked. “By unique, I mean as opposed to representing clients generally and saying: ‘Hey, there’s some legislation coming up that you might be interested in.’”

Algaze replied: “No.”

The move to end the outside lobbying contracts is not surprising given the history of state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. As a former Republican House speaker, Corcoran initiated a series of lobbying disclosure reforms, particularly aimed at public agencies using outside lobbyists. The reforms came despite the fact that Corcoran’s brother, Michael, is a prominent lobbyist.

Corcoran said the Board of Education’s decision to terminate the virtual school’s lobbying contracts will bring it into line with other state agencies that are prohibited from using outside lobbyists. (However, a host of local school boards and school districts use outside lobbyists, records show.)

“All other state agencies are prohibited by law from using public funds on private contractors for their lobbying efforts,” Corcoran said in a statement. “(The Florida Virtual School) is a public institution and should live by the spirit of the same rules. The board of directors made the right call in aligning FLVS with all other state agencies in this regard.”

Management controversies at the Florida Virtual School – well documented by the Orlando Sentinel – spurred the Legislature last spring to disband the school’s former board of trustees and put it under the direct supervision of the state Board of Education.

The state’s review of the virtual school’s budget and spending – like lobbying fees – are part of that process.

As for using outside lobbyists, state lobbying disclosure records show the school paid $105,000 to four firms in 2017 for legislative lobbying and between $40,000 and $170,000 for executive branch lobbying. (The lobbying fees are reported to the state as estimates).
In 2018, the school paid roughly $130,000 to five lobbying firms for legislative work and between $60,000 to $180,000 for executive lobbying, records show.

The school paid three lobbying firms in the first three months of this year, which included the start of the 2019 Legislature in March, records show. The firms included the Rubin group, Southern Strategy and JEJ & Associates.

As for what the lobbyists did, a Southern Strategy contract filed under the state House disclosure rules shows the firm was being paid $5,000 a month to represent the state-run school before lawmakers and executive agencies “on issues related to state funding, grant applications and policy issues.”

“In addition, as part of our scope of service, Southern Strategy Group will provide ancillary services such as electronically forwarding to you on a daily basis relevant newspaper articles, analyses, and important government announcements,” the contract says.

The Rubin group and Southern Strategy were operating under three-year contracts approved by the virtual school board last year. However, both contracts allow the state to terminate the arrangement at any time, with a 30-day notice.

The contracts will end Aug. 31. But the blow will be softened by another $20,000 payment to Rubin and a $10,000 payment to Southern Strategy for July and August, records show.

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