Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 15, 2013

School board to hire $150K communication officer

District also agrees to add more teachers at middle, high schools

by Chris Kenrick

A $150,000 communication officer will join the staff of the Palo Alto Unified School District, following the Palo Alto Board of Education's unanimous vote Tuesday night as part of a $2.6 million budget approval.

Members said the position is needed to provide "timely information and transparency" to a public making a high volume of information requests to an overwhelmed staff.

But critics of the school district characterized the new position as a poorly timed public relations ploy to hide problems, including those associated with a recent report against the district by the Office for Civil Rights in the case of the bullying of a middle school student.

"This district has lurched from mishandled crisis to mishandled crisis with no transparency and no accountability," parent Trish Davis said.

"No amount of PR is going to clean up that mess. ... Will you continue to serve the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil crowd by shoving problems under the rug?"

Board member Barb Mitchell noted that the district employed a public-information officer in the past.

"The benefits of this position will become evident to every member of the community over time," Mitchell said.

The new communications position was one of 13 budget allocations approved by the board in expenditures, which add to its roughly $160 million operating budget.

The largest chunk — $425,000 — will go toward boosting principals' discretionary funds from $70 per student to $105 per student. The funds go toward classroom support, supplies, support staff and new programs.

The board also allocated funds to hire a new teacher at each of the district's middle schools and high schools and to boost resources for high school counseling. Elementary school teachers will receive more coaching and technology support.

Some of the budget adjustments will be made immediately, and others will be implemented in the 2013-14 school year, Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak said.

In addition to the $2.6 million in new spending, Mak said she intends in the near future to propose a new $5 million "professional development fund" to be set aside for a three- to five-year professional-development project for teachers and other district staff members.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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