Friday, February 25, 2011

School communications post tabled again

Trustees remain at odds on appointment of PR specialist

Express Staff Writer

School board Chair Julie Dahlgren holds up a communications survey audit report at a Wednesday school board meeting to emphasize her support for hiring a communications director. The audit, conducted in 2010 by the National School Public Relations Association, recommended that the district hire someone full-time to handle communications. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Blaine County School District board of trustees remains at odds on whether to appoint a communications director.

At a special school board meeting Wednesday, the trustees decided not to make a decision regarding the appointment of Heather Crocker to the post, and deferred further action until their regular March 8 meeting.

Wednesday's meeting was somewhat contentious, with board Chair Julie Dahlgren and Trustee Daniel Parke favoring approving the appointment, Trustee Kathryn Graves wanting to further discuss the issue in closed executive session, Trustee Paul Bates advocating communications training for existing district staff and Trustee Steve Guthrie seeking a board compromise.

Dahlgren made it clear that she stands behind a decision made by the board in November to hire someone to direct communications for the district.

"We're definitely not going to revote on what was voted for in November," Dahlgren said.

The board was divided then too, with Dahlgren, Parke and Guthrie voting to hire a communications director and Graves and Bates voting no.

The hiring was approved at the request of district Superintendent Lonnie Barber, who argued that existing administrators do not have time to focus on communications and need a full-time person to do the job. Barber further cited public demands for improved communications and a communications audit conducted last year by the National School Public Relations Association that recommended hiring of a full-time communications specialist.

Following board approval to hire someone, the job was advertised and Crocker, currently executive director of the Blaine County Education Foundation, was selected by a hiring committee from among 22 applicants.

Since then, the board has received extensive public comment for and against the proposition.

About 35 district parents and patrons attended Wednesday's meeting, an unusually large crowd for a special meeting.

Before deciding to postpone the decision, the board discussed the issue at length and allowed further public comment regarding the appointment.

Former board member Alexandra Sundali, who favors the appointment, accused Bates of "conflict of interest" over the issue because a teacher at Hemingway Elementary School, who Sundali described as Bates' "life partner," signed a letter in opposition to hiring a communications director.

"Trustee Bates should not be at the table for this discussion and this vote," Sundali said.

Bates acknowledged in an interview Thursday that he lives with the teacher but said in no way does that situation compromise his decision-making ability as a board member.

"I'm not trying to hide it—everyone knows," Bates said.

Bates and Sundali have battled before. In the 2009 school board election, Bates defeated Sundali to become the Ketchum-area representative on the board.

Theresa Castellano-Wood, founder and vice president of the Works of Grace Foundation, told the board that the district needs a communications director and that the foundation is willing to donate $25,000 to help pay the first year's salary.

"We are inundated with misinformation," Castellano-Wood said. "We need to move this community forward in a positive way."

Hailey resident Sheri Thomas argued that the district should save the money for teachers' salaries, especially in light of possible funding cutbacks contained in several education reform bills pending before the Legislature.

"As long as teachers are in a delicate spot of losing their jobs, you should not be filling this job," Thomas said.

The school board rebuffed a suggestion by Trustee Graves that the board convene into executive session to discuss the appointment in private.

"This has been a public process and now we're going to go into executive session?" Trustee Parke asked. "That doesn't make a lot of sense. We need to stay as open as possible."

In response to criticism over the job salary, which was posted at $78,000 per year, Assistant Superintendent John Blackman, who also directs the district's Human Resources Department, said he surveyed professional communications salaries in the region and found that an average annual salary is $73,000. Blackman said he added $5,000 to the average because the district wanted an experienced communicator and to account for the higher cost of living in Blaine County.

Blackman said 33 percent of the district's teachers make more than $78,000 per year.

He said the communications job is for 246 days a year, compared to 190 for teachers. If pay per day is computed, Blackman said, 73 percent of the district's teachers make more than would be paid to a communications director.

Trustee Guthrie suggested that a compromise might be to hire a part-time rather than full-time director.

Blackman said the district would have to start from scratch in the hiring process if the job was changed to part-time because it was advertised as a full-time position.

"I'm just looking for a bit of compromise here," Guthrie said.

Terry Smith:

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