Friday, February 11, 2011

Trustees delay vote on PR post

Appointment of communications specialist put on hold

Express Staff Writer

John Blackman Julie Dahlgren

Reacting to public criticism, the Blaine County school board has tabled action on appointment of a communications director.

"We feel we need more time to discuss the item," board Chair Julie Dahlgren said at Tuesday's meeting of the Blaine County School District board of trustees.

The item at hand was appointment of Heather Crocker, currently executive director of the Blaine County Education Foundation, as district communications director, a new position approved on a 3-2 vote by the board in November.

Creation of the position was approved at the request of district Superintendent Lonnie Barber, who argued in November that he needed a district official to "focus" on communications issues so the district can meet public demands for improved communications and transparency.

Crocker was selected for the job by a 14-member hiring committee that considered 22 applicants. The position was advertised with an annual salary of $78,000.

Criticism at Tuesday's meeting was not directed at the selection of Crocker, but on the creation of the position itself.

"We don't need a communications director," said Hailey resident Sheri Thomas. "As I see it, we are putting the superintendent's needs over the needs of our children."

"There has been an outcry from the community in great force," said Annie Weber, another Hailey resident. "I'm not happy about having a communications director. In a year when teachers are not getting pay raises, I don't know how you can even consider this position at this time."

"I think at best it's unnecessary and at worst a waste of money," said Hailey resident Michael Beck.

Two district patrons spoke in favor of the appointment. Ketchum area resident Lyman Drake pointed out that creation of the position was a major recommendation from a communications audit conducted last year and that a communications director is needed to help lead the district to "cultural change."

"You can't hold an executive accountable if you're holding his hands as to how he gets the job done," Drake said.

Alex Sundali, a former member of the school board, said the district is often plagued by false rumor and misinformation getting out to the public.

"That kind of misinformation could be controlled with an information director," Sundali said.

A decision to table the issue came at the beginning of the board meeting, when the trustees unanimously voted to amend the agenda to exclude the Crocker appointment decision. The board did not indicate when the issue will be revisited.

Assistant Superintendent John Blackman said he received numerous telephone and e-mail comments about the appointment during the past week.

While many comments were critical of the appointment, Blackman said, some "good ideas" came out of the discussions and the district is putting two of them into practice for all future hires.

First, he said, the district will actively pursue development of a "volunteer list" for serving on committees for hiring. Committee members from now on will be selected "at random" from the list to avoid the appearance that committees are "hand picked," he said.

Second, Blackman said, all open positions in the district will now be advertised in "the newspaper."

Some critics of the appointment have complained that the job opening was not adequately publicized because it was not advertised in the Idaho Mountain Express, the largest newspaper in the valley.

Terry Smith:

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