Wednesday, November 17, 2010

School District needs communications director


Got a toothache? Don't call a dentist. Let's set up a committee to discuss the job description of the person we might eventually decide to hire to study and treat your problem—under our detailed direction, of course.

Such is the logic of those School Board members and others who have opposed the district's plan to add a communications director to the superintendent's staff. One board member went so far as to state that were the board to authorize the hire, it would be "washing its hands of the communications audit."

On the contrary, the board would be implementing the communications audit.

The audit was conducted last spring by a communications expert from the National School Public Relations Association—a group "dedicated to building support and trust for education through responsible public relations that leads to success for all students." The auditor's report was made public in September, and is available on the School District's website. A key recommendation of the report was to hire a communications professional to manage the district's communication with its multiple constituencies: teachers, staff, students, parents, citizens and taxpayers. The agenda for the new communications director is laid out in some 50-plus recommendations in the audit report.

A recurring theme in the report is consultation, consultation, consultation. This is not some devious scheme to manipulate public opinion and cover up the district's shortcomings. The intention is not to outfit the superintendent with a personal spin doctor. It's to improve communication all around to allay the fear and distrust that undermine the district's efforts to do the best for our children. District leaders willingly admit that communication is inadequate today because: a) they are not public relations professionals and b) they are so busy doing their jobs that the communication side gets neglected.

One involved parent told me that it would be a travesty to have as communications director someone actually on the district payroll. (So we should look for a volunteer?) The comment illustrates the visceral hostility and distrust of the district leadership that flourish in some quarters. This is the very problem that a communications director would be charged with correcting. How? Not by agitprop, but by opening lines of honest communication—in both directions.

The new communications director will be the earpiece, as well as the mouthpiece, of the administration—keeping the top leadership in touch with the public's concerns. The communications director will work to develop those "bridges" to the community called for in the strategic plan. The communications director will work to strengthen the PTSAs as channels for two-way communication between parents and schools. The communications director will administer the antidote to toxic rumors. By providing full, accurate information, the communications director will increase the transparency and accountability that the district's critics demand.

It is ironic that those people who have complained loudest about the district's communication failures are now opposing the district's efforts to correct the problems. Do we really wish to perpetuate a vicious circle of miscommunication and mistrust? If so, we will get the result we deserve: endless squabbling and a demoralized education team. Mediocrity. We can forget about world-class anything.

Fortunately, the board, at its November meeting, voted 3-2 to authorize the new position. It will take time as well as a person of stature and integrity to earn the trust of the doubters. We should now give the district the chance to demonstrate that it is moving in the right direction.

Lyman Drake lives in Ketchum.

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