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Feature                                                      Pages 18-22

 

The View Inside the Legislator’s

Office

A retired superintendent gains an insider’s perspective working as a staffer during a state legislative session in Texas

BY BELINDA W. PUSTKA 

It was in March 2010, just months after my retirement as a superintendent, when I received a phone call from state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, asking if I would be interested in working for him as an education policy staffer in the upcoming 82nd Texas legislative session. Aycock was set to serve a second term on the House’s education committee and a second term on the appropriations committee. I was ready for a new experience — and I got it.

Belinda Pustka
Belinda Pustka

Lawmakers during the 82nd session dealt with a range of issues, from the complex to the near absurd. They discussed immigration issues and school finance plans. They also addressed the hunting of feral hogs from helicopters with automatic weapons and wrestled with whether it should be legal to “noodle,” or grab, 50-pound female catfish from under the banks of rivers with bare hands.

From my perspective, as someone who had spent 32 years working in public schools, the most troubling issue facing the legislature was how to handle a major shortfall in state revenue. More importantly, how would lawmakers address the fiscal impact on public education, the single largest expenditure in the state’s budget?

I gladly accepted the opportunity to join the staff ranks in the Texas House of Representatives and to give lawmakers an education insider’s viewpoint. Having served during an important session, I now can offer other education leaders a legislative staffer’s perspective of the dealings that take place regarding funding and legislation affecting the schools.

Troubling Issues 
Plenty of parallels exist between dealing with constituent issues at the Capitol and dealing with community issues as a superintendent. Listening to constituents’ concerns means listening to people with a story.

One of the great delights of the session was meeting with constituents who came to the Capitol office to advocate a position, often passionately. I fielded a wide range of concerns — everything from animal rights to what can be legally sold at the local farmers market to more personal issues involving school districts providing a place for nursing mothers to express milk for their young children.

The most heart-wrenching story I heard came from parents whose only child committed suicide. They came to the Capitol to lobby in support of an anti-bullying bill. The image of those parents going from office to office throughout the Capitol retelling such a painful story still haunts me. By the end of the session, a bill with bipartisan support prohibiting bullying in schools became law.

In retrospect, I found two education issues troubling. The first was the widespread support for charter and for-profit schools at a time when there didn’t seem to be commensurate support for traditional public schools. Helping troubled public schools often involves passing laws that lead to greater state control. At the same time, there seems to be a willingness to suspend the rules and restrictions for charter and other nonpublic schools. If removing some state constraints is beneficial for charter schools, shouldn’t it also benefit public schools? In Texas, the charter organizations have a strong and effective lobby at the Capitol, and many charter and for-profit schools have developed a credible record of achievement.

The second issue I found unsettling was the state’s decision to delay its consideration of how to pay for student growth. Texas will add around 170,000 students in K-12 education during the next two years. However, the legislature undertook no budgetary provisions for supporting all those additional students. Rather than tackling the politically difficult issue of providing adequate funding for Texas public education, lawmakers, in effect, left it to the courts to force action. Having developed school budgets, I understand all too well the implications for school districts of this lack of financial support.

Suggested Strategies
The major lesson I learned was that it is our responsibility as educators to let our representatives and senators on the state and federal levels know what matters most. Only when we communicate our priorities effectively can our legislature provide meaningful support to public schools.

Based on my personal and up-close observations of the inner workings at the Texas Capitol, I’d like to share a few suggestions for how to work effectively with legislators and members of their staff.

Get to know the key players. This means the chiefs of staff and the individual staffers assigned to public education matters. In most legislators’ offices, each staff member is assigned to a specific area of state government. Often, the staffer on assignment doesn’t know much about his or her assigned area when the session begins. These staffers typically are young college graduates who want to learn more about the function of government, and they’re willing to work for a pittance to gain the experience.

Arrange for face time. It’s almost as important to know the chief of staff and the education staffer as it is to get face time with the elected official. The chief of staff is the gatekeeper for who has access to the elected representative. He or she decides the information that moves forward to the official and who gets an appointment. Moreover, while turnover exists among elected officials, most of the chiefs of staff who are at the Capitol now will still be there in that capacity for an elected official for many years to come. The time you spend building rapport with these individuals will pay dividends in future sessions.

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Play a teaching role. The staffers assigned to public education are seeking as much information as possible to help them understand the issues under debate. Fill the void and be the person to provide that information in an honest and forthright manner. Give them your cellphone number and your personal e-mail address, and encourage them to contact you with any questions they might have. Offer to be a resource for them, and then work to provide them with information they need to understand the education issues.

Recognize the competing demands. Regardless of the philosophical differences I might have had with representatives, I came away from the experience with enormous respect for our elected officials. They work long hours, day after day, at a great personal cost to them and their families in order to serve. Their days in the Capitol often ran from 7:30 in the morning until the wee hours of the next morning, seven days a week, with few breaks during the day.

Just as the elected officials worked long hours debating issues on the floor, the chiefs of staff and other staffers worked the same long hours. The phones rang with constituent calls until late in the evening throughout the session. Take the opportunity to regularly thank your legislators and their office staffs for their hours of service.

Make the personal connections. I cannot overstate the importance of connecting with your state representatives and senators. It can make a difference for your school district and for public education. Think of it this way: If you stopped individuals on the street and asked them about the quality of public education, they likely would speak favorably about their child’s school, but perhaps express concerns about other public schools. Now, apply this bias to superintendents and central-office administration.

During my time at the Capitol, I was amazed at the amount of anger the general public felt toward superintendents as a group and central-office administrators as a whole. State representatives were no different. However, the exception was how the representatives spoke about “their superintendents.” They may not trust superintendents as a group, but they often felt a connection with those they had met from their home legislative district and relied upon their advice and opinions when making decisions and casting votes.

Get to the point when testifying. I heard some excellent testimony during public education committee meetings. Especially welcome were those who kept their messages brief. Legislators who work long days don’t have time to digest anything but the most pertinent information. Also, speak it, don’t read it. Testimony sounds more genuine if you speak it. If at all possible, provide written copies of your testimony for each committee member to review later.

Keep your cool. If a legislator asks you a question following your testimony, don’t respond in anger or with accusations. That only puts the representatives on the defense. Whether or not you’re in agreement, you have to trust they understand the decisions they are making are critical and they want to do the best they can. If you feel you can’t respond respectfully to their questioning or provide testimony without laying blame, then pass on testifying and allow someone else to speak on the issue.

Groom your board members. Some of the most effective testimony I witnessed was delivered by school board members. I don’t think we use our boards enough in this capacity. Elected officials respond to other elected officials because they know what it’s like to answer to constituents.

Make it simple. Develop a clear explanation of the complicated issue that you are addressing in front of the legislature. The elected representatives want to understand the nuances of school finance or the implications of the state and federal testing system. However, most education issues have multiple layers of complexity that make them difficult to explain. Schedule time now — before you travel to the state capital — to develop a simple yet understandable position paper on complex issues that you can give to staffers, as well as legislators. Once they grasp the high-level overview, they will ask for more detailed information they can use during committee meetings.

Professional Value
During these difficult financial times when many states are often trying to balance budgets by applying deep cuts to public education, the money school districts spend on professional organizations remains a wise investment. Legislators often turn to the governmental relations staffs of these statewide and national organizations to provide much-needed research and information to help in making informed decisions.

More than likely, hunting feral hogs and grabbing enormous catfish off their nests will not be an issue in most state legislatures. However, I am almost certain issues facing public education will be debated in most states as we grapple with how to best educate our nation’s children. Establishing connections and partnering with your elected officials to provide the answers to their questions makes a lot of sense right now. These relationships will benefit your students as much as anything else you do.

Belinda Pustka is a retired superintendent of Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District in Schertz, Texas. E-mail: belindapustka@hotmail.com


 

 

 

 

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