An Insider’s Route to Engaging Effectively with State Legislators

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2023

A former superintendent turned state senator shares how public school leaders can best make their case in person or from afar
Five people standing together, looking at a one-sheet
During a September visit to the state Capitol, Kansas Sen. Brenda Dietrich (center) and Tiffany Anderson, superintendent in Tope-ka, Kan., discussed a summary of proposed legislation with other superintendents listening. PHOTO BY KELSEY KIMBERLIN

Every piece of legislation impacting school districts starts as an idea, and that idea can come from multiple sources — a legislator, a school board member, a staff member, a paid lobbyist or even an involved citizen.

State legislation succeeds or fails depending on a number of factors, but it is more likely to pass if it has been the focus of intense lobbying. Superintendents can have a strong voice both individually and collectively, not only because of their professional roles but as constituents who live in a particular legislator’s district.

It can be frustrating for superintendents to get legislators to listen and understand a position on a piece of legislation. I know that firsthand. I was a superintendent in Kansas’ capital city for 14 years, so I spent a lot of time in the statehouse interacting with legislators and lobbyists and providing testimony during some difficult budget years. There were many situations with legislators when I would leave a committee room or an office wondering if anyone was really listening. Now, having been in the state legislature for seven years, I have a better understanding of the entire complicated legislative process from the other side of the table.

I was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2016 after 40 years in public education, 19 of them as a superintendent. In 2020, I was elected to the Kansas Senate. I have served on the Education Committee in both chambers, listening to testimony from superintendents, professional lobbyists, parents, interested community members, students and school board members and spent hours churning through all of the bills, amendments, agreements, discussions, negotiations and compromises that produce the final bill that may or may not become law.

Imperfect Outcomes

During this last session, we passed a controversial school funding bill, House Substitute for SB 113, on the last day of our session. We had to balance the good in the bill — it fully funded public schools until 2027 — with the many onerous policy pieces that were inserted during conference committee negotiations with the House. The bill passed both chambers, but the governor vetoed one provision in the bill that was added at the 11th hour that would have harmed our rural schools.

The bill was signed into law. It was not perfect, but we could not have made it any better. Those who demanded a clean school funding bill were not happy, but no bill is perfect, and that is a hard concept for those in the field who believe it is possible to hold the legislature hostage to eventually get a better bill. It just does not work that way.

Superintendents can be a powerful voice with legislators, even more so if you can build a personal working relationship with your elected officials. You don’t have to be best friends with your legislators, but you do need to be respectful, persistent and approachable. Resist the desire to give your legislators a free pass just because you think they are not listening to you or purposefully not understanding your concerns.

Five people standing and smiling on steps of state capitol
Brenda Dietrich’s legislative sounding board in Kansas consists of (from left) superintendents Brad Womack, Bill Clark, Troy Pitsch, Tiffany Anderson and Scott McWilliams. PHOTO BY KELSEY KIMBERLIN

Most legislators are exceptionally busy, so you have to seek them out and be present in their orbit, whether it is at the statehouse or at events in your school district. Superintendents jokingly tell me they sometimes feel like they are stalking their legislators trying to connect with them, but it is worth it.

Understanding Legislators

Contracted lobbyists receive a short bio on all new legislators to get to know these newly elected officials quickly. What avenues do you have to learn more about the legislators you want to contact?

Their occupations. A lot of legislators are retired, but they had a profession. That profession influences how they think about policies or allocations, and it is often how they frame new concepts.

Legislative district demographics. Legislators represent distinct groups of people. As problematic policy issues arise, it is always good to understand the filter through which legislators view those policies.

I was testifying several years ago in front of the House Education Committee on how districts use contingency reserve funds (unencumbered funds) and the necessity of having those funds available for emergencies and/or specific one-time planned expenditures.

Many of us were testifying because we feared those funds would be taken by the state during a time when state government was sweeping funds from state agencies to pay its bills. A rural legislator questioned me in disbelief when I indicated my district anticipated spending nearly a million dollars for a K-12 language arts textbook adoption out of our reserve funds. I sent him our detailed spreadsheet listing the number of textbooks by grade level and the corresponding cost. He could not comprehend spending a million dollars on anything because his filter was small, rural school districts.

Voting record. Unless you have a newly elected legislator who has not cast a vote yet, legislators have a record of votes they have taken and legislation they have introduced. Look at the legislator’s Facebook page, Instagram posts, newsletters or anything that will help you ascertain what’s important to that individual.

Committee assignments. A legislator’s ability to influence legislation depends largely upon whether he or she is a member of the committee to which that bill is assigned. Those in leadership positions have a far greater ability to move policy proposals through the legislative process.

What’s Your Ask?

If you are meeting in the state Capitol in the legislator’s office, you are likely there for a specific reason. Legislators have busy days, and your meeting will be sandwiched among many others.

To make best use of the engagement, consider these measures:

Call or e-mail your legislator to make an appointment.

Be prompt and be flexible. Sometimes schedules change at the Capitol with little notice.

If you have to cancel, call the office and give your regrets. Try to reschedule. Do not be a “no show.” That is not how you want to be remembered.

Share contact information, especially your cellphone number. Leave your business card.

If you bring a group with you, don’t be offended if you meet in the hall. It just means the office is too small or another meeting is taking place in the conference room.

Why You’re Present

If you come to a legislator’s office and he or she cannot figure out what your concern is in the first 5 minutes, it will be a wasted meeting. Plan what you are going to say in advance and start with why you requested the meeting. Keep it simple and concise. You will likely have 15 minutes or less.

“Senator, thank you for meeting with me. I would like to talk to you about SB 14 and a provision in that bill that will cause my district to lose $2 million this next school year.”

Bring a copy of the bill with you in case the legislator hasn’t seen it yet.

Explain the need simply and the consequences of that piece of legislation.

Ask if the legislator has a position on this bill.

Thank each person for visiting with you and leave something with your legislators as a reminder of your concerns. My preference is a single-page brightly colored document with the ask and a synopsis of the facts or data as discussed. Legislators handle a lot of documents during the day, so find a way to make sure yours won’t get lost on the desk (or worse).

Send a thank you e-mail or notecard as a follow-up to your meeting. It is a simple act of appreciation, and it keeps the momentum rolling.

Stay in touch. Send short communications throughout the session to stay on your legislator’s radar screen and invite the legislator to events in the school district.

Alternative Contact
One woman and three men talking and sitting at wooden table
Kansas Sen. Brenda Dietrich (left) solicits input from superintendents in her legislative district, including (from left) Scott McWilliams of Auburn-Washburn School District, Bill Clark of Mission Valley School District and Brad Womack of Silver Lake School District. PHOTO BY KELSEY KIMBERLIN

If you’re at the state Capitol without an appointment, you always can stop by your legislator’s office to drop off some materials and let staff know of your concerns or position on a particular bill. You can leave your contact information and follow up with an e-mail. Try not to camp out in your legislator’s office and create a traffic jam or, worse yet, follow your legislator into the restroom to make your point. It has happened!

If I have folks who want to visit with me but don’t have an appointment, I invite them to “walk with me” to my next committee meeting or “ride the elevator with me” so we can talk. You get the chance for an audience and it’s often a more friendly interaction.

If meeting in person is not an option, then send an e-mail to the legislator. It will generate a quicker response than a phone call.

Legislators can read and answer e-mails from their phones, iPads and laptops during committee meetings and in the legislative chamber. If you are e-mailing a legislator about a specific bill, provide the bill title, the bill number, the legislative committee it is assigned to and the provision(s) in the bill that you find concerning. I serve on four standing committees, several joint committees and special interim committees. It is impossible to remember all of the bills by their assigned number. During our last session, the House introduced 474 bills and the Senate introduced 326.

Lastly, remember that most state legislatures are part-time. Take advantage of the time when the legislature is not in session to engage with your legislators and continue to build your relationship. Many pieces of legislation are pre-filed before the session begins. You can be an informed resource and an advocate for your school district, even when the legislature is not in session. Never doubt your influence. n

Brenda Dietrich, a former superintendent, is a Republican state senator for Kansas Senate District 20 in Topeka, Kan. Twitter: @SenDietrich


Brenda Dietrich

Republican state senator

Kansas Senate District 20, Topeka, Kan.

Ready to Deliver Testimony? Here’s How

You have been invited to testify at a state legislative committee hearing. You’re eager, but how do you get legislators’ attention?

The best way: Give them something to remember. Tell a story or give examples to illustrate how the bill being considered will impact your schools.

What you bring to the table is the compelling evidence about how policy issues will affect staff, parents and students in the schools you lead — and often the citizens an elected official represents in the legislature.

Practical Advice

Based on my time as both a superintendent delivering testimony and as a state legislator listening to it, here are some suggestions for being effective when testifying.

Follow legislative committee rules. The legislature has rules about how conferees provide testimony, including whom to contact to be placed on the committee agenda, the deadline for submitting testimony and the hearing date. Use your state superintendents association as a resource to provide testimony.

Notify your school board. It is a precarious and embarrassing situation if a board reads about your testimony on the front page of the local newspaper without prior notification.

Ensure your facts are accurate. All shared information ought to be correct and up to date. Be careful with your adjectives and adverbs to avoid exaggerating, misstating or misrepresenting facts. If you are asked a question you cannot answer, offer to research the question and get back to the committee.

Speak clearly and simply about a funding issue. State the consequences of not getting the funding, without using accusatory or sensational language. Be concise and provide your legislators with unambiguous facts and concrete examples.

Share a one-page graphic. To support your message, develop a flyer with a graphic of the consequences of the bill being considered and how it will impact your district.

Be mindful of strong reactions. Bills that are controversial stir up emotions and harsh language in testimony. When legislators hear words like “shocking disregard” or “stunning lack of understanding,” they likely will stop listening or push back in equally harsh terms. When I voted in education committee against a bill banning transgender children from school sports teams that aligned with their identities, my simple statement — “I choose compassion” — generated lots of press attention.

Testifying Guidance

If you are advocating for a particular bill or section within a bill related to funding, start by describing your district demographics (urban, suburban, rural, enrollment, poverty level, ethnicity, etc.).

Then state your position and tell a story with clear examples of why these dollars are important to your district. If you are concerned about special education funding, bring a document that shows the increase in the numbers of special education students, the types of disabilities and the cost of educating those students, and graph the changes over time.

For new legislators, start with basic information about school district funding. You live in the world of managing a school district, but they do not. In my last years as a superintendent, a common belief existed in the legislature that school districts were not spending taxpayer dollars wisely. We tried to counteract that perception with facts.

We started with a truthful statement: School districts are the greatest recyclers of money in the state. Districts take the taxpayer dollars we receive in state funding and recycle it right back into the economy. We support small businesses and spend our dollars locally on payroll (usually 80 percent of our budgets), utilities, construction projects, HVAC, asphalt, fuel, painting, office supplies, etc.

In my county, home of five school districts, we gave our legislators a breakdown of how much money, by district and by category, we spent with local vendors. They had no idea that our payroll total in 2012 was $10 million with most staff living in the county, owning their own homes and paying property and sales tax locally.

We then spent a lot of time educating those legislators on the cost of educating students and the critical components of the school finance formula that were essential to keeping our schools open and our students performing at the highest levels. That argument remains persuasive to my ears as a legislator.

—  Brenda Dietrich