The Palo Alto school board voted 3-2 on Tuesday evening to approve the creation of a full-time communications coordinator position, with the board's two newest members not convinced that the job description as is will address the district's most pressing communication needs.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell, Vice President Heidi Emberling and trustee Camille Townsend voted in favor of the position, while members Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey dissented. Superintendent Max McGee had initially proposed the district find a part-time person to fill the vacancy left when district spokeswoman Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley resigned in June, but said Tuesday that after discussions with his leadership team, it became clear that a full-time person is needed.
McGee said in the absence of a designated communications person, the district has struggled to meet several media requests by deadline and to distribute critical information to schools in a timely manner. He said he worries that "sooner or later, we're going to have an oversight that's critical."
School principals also stressed to McGee their reliance on the previous communications coordinator for support in writing messages to their school communities on both a day-to-day basis and in crisis or emergency situations.
Nancy Coffey, president of the Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA), also expressed her organization's support for the full-time position, reading a letter signed by PAMA leadership.
"Our district has over 12,000 students representing more than 8,500 households who depend on information from our 1,664 employees at our preschool, 13 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, adult school and hospital school," Coffey told the board. "In the interest of timely, consistent and transparent communication with our community, we need a point person to coordinate our complex organization's communication efforts, both internally and externally."
Dauber and Godfrey, however, questioned the value of reproducing the role and responsibilities of the previous communications coordinator.
"One potential problem with a communications officer, which I think has been realized to some extent in the past, is a focus on the presentation of the district in a positive light as opposed to in an accurate or clear light," Dauber said.
"I haven't seen in its execution an urgency around it that is consistent with the other educational goals that we could be serving with these dollars," he added, pointing to Kappeler-Hurley's $143,000 annual salary.
Dauber was also critical of the position during the last school year when McGee tested out a new communications strategy, asking Kappeler-Hurley to each week gather and rank all media coverage about the district as either a "win," "lose," or "tie."
Kappeler-Hurley told the Weekly in December that a story categorized as a win successfully shared the "good work that the district is doing" and might have been the result of a press release she sent out. What was deemed a tie was more subjective, she said. The practice was considered a metric for one of the board's five overarching goals for the 2014-15 year: "to anticipate, respond, and promptly resolve distracting and disruptive issues in order to maintain focus on the District's vision."
At the time, Dauber urged McGee to discontinue the practice.
"I don't think that it really reflects our communications strategy well to try to categorize media reports (as) positive, negative and neutral, because I think it leads us into decisions that media coverage is negative not because it's inaccurate, necessarily which I think should be our standard but because it's critical," Dauber said at the Dec. 9 board meeting.
Several months later, in March, McGee made a "strategic decision" to end the media tabulation practice.
Godfrey said Tuesday night that she expects the district's new associate superintendent, Markus Autrey, to serve as a high-level spokesman for the district. (His responsibilities, according to a job description, include to "act as the key spokesperson for assigned areas of responsibility" and to "communicate with the public and media on curriculum and instructional issues.")
While Godfrey is "not supportive of a Tabitha re-do," she said she sees value in someone who can provide support around lower-level tasks "basic blocking and tackling, she said such as scheduling media interviews. Kappeler-Hurley sometimes did this, as well as tasks ranging from writing press releases to taking photographs at school events and helping to navigate Powerpoint slides at board meetings.
A more important priority, Godfrey said and one the district has struggled with in the past is transparency. She said she would like to see the board's emails publicly posted in a timely manner, a request other board members also made at a retreat in June.
Both Townsend and Emberling said they themselves have felt uninformed in Kappeler-Hurley's absence and hope a new hire will focus on both internal and external communications. Emberling, who sends out a regular e-newsletter summarizing board work, pointed to widespread dissatisfaction around board communication expressed by students, staff and parents in the most recent Strategic Plan survey.
"I think we have some serious communications concerns and my hope would be that someone who has been trained in communications could help us improve our systems across the district," Emberling said.
While Godfrey questioned the position's high salary echoing past community criticisms of the job as an unnecessary expense Baten Caswell said that the district, in the middle of Silicon Valley, must offer competitive pay in order to find a quality person. Baten Caswell sat on the interview panel for the job when the district hired Kappeler-Hurley in 2013 and said the district struggled to compete with high-tech firms in the area also looking for communications officers.
"If all you want is somebody to push papers it's one thing, but if you want them to actually put processes together, write things that go onto the website, that kind of stuff, you need somebody who's got that background and for this amount of money, we really had a hard time coming up with strong candidates," she said.
Kappeler-Hurley's starting salary in 2013 was $130,000. Last year her total compensation was $143,258 with an additional $39,076 in district-paid benefits.