For many years the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has been concerned with improving its communications both internally and to the community.
Last spring, the School District hired a consultant to audit the School District’s communication practices. A key recommendation made by the consultant was that the District should hire a full-time cabinet level communications director with adequate resources and support services to perform some key communication functions. Superintendent Tim Cuneo decided to follow through with the consultant’s recommendation at the School Board ‘s October 15 meeting when he suggested that the District hire a Director of Communication, Accountability and Community Engagement to facilitate communication and public relations for the District.
Cuneo explained to the Board that such a position was needed now despite the District’s current budget crisis because the District is facing some critical times and “we need to communicate to our community the many issues we are facing.” He also emphasized that the District currently doesn’t have the personnel to work on the needed communications on the District’s budget deficit, on a potential emergency parcel tax, a future bond measure, the status of the District’s old strategic plan, the development of a new strategic plan, or progress on the District’s Facilities Master Plan. The position would be funded from money available from another position that wasn’t filled and from Measure BB funds. (These are funds from the bond measure approved by the voters to improve the School District’s facilities.)
The Superintendent’s suggestion received a mixed reaction from the community. The Chair of the District’s Financial Oversight Committee, Cynthia Torres, agreed with the Superintendent that it is likely we “will have a difficult school funding measure election that’s likely to happen later in the school year, so it will be important to communicate to our voters about the dire financial position of the District.” Also supportive was the District’s PTA Council.
Santa Monica High School parent Richard McKinnon stated that he had always been supportive of hiring such an official because it’s the District’s “core responsibility to communicate with its stakeholders.” However, when he heard that the District is facing a $12 million deficit, he changed his mind and decided this is not time for the District to hire any new employees. He also noted that “in a year where you are making cuts all around, that the community will think hiring a PR person is not justifiable. I think it’s bad politics.”
Also opposed was the President of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, Harry Keiley. He asked the Board “How will this position make a difference to a child on a daily basis?” He also stressed that the District has been “asking employee groups to make considerable concessions” due to the economic crisis and is “then talking about spending more money on a position that may be needed in good times.”
School Board members were also opposed to considering this type of position at this time. Board member Jose Escarce stated, like other Board members that he “always thought a position like this could bring value to the District.” However, in his view “the benefits from it in the short run are not that sizeable.” He doesn’t believe it would enhance the District’s ability to pass an emergency parcel tax. Instead, he urged the District to “focus its resources on retaining our programs” during these tight times.
Echoing Escarce was Board member Kelly Pye who was worried that the resources this position would consume would mean the loss of another more critical position in the District. She discussed how the loss of one school nurse or a music teacher could directly affect the lives of hundreds of District students.
The Board decided that its President and Vice President should meet with the Superintendent to continue the discussion about the position before it is brought back to the Board for their review again.