The Douglas County School District’s five-plus years of education reform have made national headlines. But some community members say the district’s extensive communications effort accompanying the changes glosses over their deep concerns, …
The Douglas County School District’s five-plus years of education reform have made national headlines. But some community members say the district’s extensive communications effort accompanying the changes glosses over their deep concerns, drowning them under a tidal wave of multi-channel messages to parents, district employees, students and county residents.
To try to make their voices heard, parent and teacher groups have launched their own Facebook pages and websites, established groups, invited education experts to speak in public venues, filed lawsuits, organized protests, made innumerable open-records requests, filed formal complaints and devoted countless volunteer hours to broadcasting their own story.
At the same time, the district’s communications department has grown in size, budget and sophistication.
The department’s adopted 2014-15 budget, which includes salaries for seven employees, is about $792,000. That amount is almost double that of five years ago; in 2009-10, the staff included four employees operating with a budget of about $403,500.
DCSD’s communications department uses emailed parent and employee newsletters, its website, a cable TV channel, radio program, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to relay information to students, parents, staff and community members.
The picture painted in DCSD’s messages doesn’t always match what the community is seeing, critics say.
“Our polls show a lack of support” for the major reforms, said Gary Colley, a retired teacher who launched the Community Accountability Committee for DCSD and who’s asked the board to ensure the community agrees with changes before implementing them. “We’re just trying to get some reasonable responsiveness from our elected officials.”
School board members believe they are being responsive, but also staying true to the reform path on which they were elected.
“I don’t believe anything is going to be absolutely perfect, especially if you’re trying to do things in a different way,” school board member Judi Reynolds said. “I believe the other thing that happens when you’re making significant changes to a system is that there are certainly people that are not going to be happy with those changes.
“There’s always going to be room for improvement and changes. I think that’s where it’s always important to listen to members of the community about what things actually look like when they’re implemented. It doesn’t always mean because there’s a few people that don’t like some things that that will change our course.”
School board President Kevin Larsen sees the changes made in board meetings since he took the helm in January as an expansion of public comment. Meetings include less time for general comments but more for agenda-specific items.
The policy also gives Larsen the ability to be flexible and accommodating.
“And I’ve tried to do both,” he said, adding the board is open to comments from those who disagree with their policies, “if they’re represented in a constructive, coherent way.”
Parent and former Littleton Public Schools teacher Patti Hickey has both attended and watched live school board meetings, and said the board is dismissive of public concerns.
“I have sent emails to the board and spoken at meetings,” she said. “There is zero response. They just go their merry way and completely shut out the parents and teachers. They won’t do anything about it because they don’t have to — they are in control.”
DCSD often references its attempt to “reinvent American education,” and relies on its communications department to show how it’s doing so.
They’re not alone. The National School Public Relations Association says schools need a PR professional now “more than ever.” It cites improved technology and communications methods and changes in education that result in taxpayers hearing a variety of messages from multiple sources.
“A well-thought-out public relations plan will help ensure that a school district carries out its mission and meets its goals with the support of its staff and community,” according to the NSPRA.
In 2011, the DCSD communications department reorganized and “developed a comprehensive plan to meet a mission of communicating, educating and informing our four stakeholder groups: students, parents, employees and the community,” according to DCSD’s website. “The results speak for themselves — through strong community partnerships and well-informed stakeholders, DCSD has expanded support and enthusiasm for reform.”
Not everyone agrees.
“What they put out to the public is so much spin,” said Cindy Barnard, president of Taxpayers for Public Education, a group that filed suit against DCSD for its voucher program.
An Education Writers Association 2013 survey showed concerns about the role of education PR staffers. The survey of 190 education reporters found PR officers regulate information “to the point where most reporters considered the control to be a form of censorship and an impediment to providing information to the public,” according to a Society of Professional Journalists’ report titled “Mediated Access.”
Hickey described some board and district communications as “misleading.”
“They’re banking on an audience that’ll just read it, say `Everything’s great,’ and not delve into it or ask those important questions,” she said.
As a board member, Reynolds said she has no input on the communications department’s releases, but she supports their work.
“I think largely, yes, the communications department does a good job of putting the information out,” she said.