District’s public relations focus of special school-board meeting

Board discusses using consultant to head public-relations department


Mehlville Board of Education members discussed a proposal to “enhance” the school district’s public-relations efforts during a special meeting last week, but took no action.

Board of Education President Tom Diehl said the April 26 special meeting originally was called to discuss the creation of a new administrative position that would oversee the district’s public-relations efforts.

But after discussing the issue with representatives of UNICOM•ARC, the consultant that is assisting the district with its community-engagement program, Diehl and interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers asked the board to consider amending its contract with the firm to have UNICOM•ARC oversee Mehlville’s public-relations efforts.

“At the end of the last meeting (April 19), we discussed that Dr. Chambers and I would talk to UNICOM•ARC about ongoing community engagement and PR (public relations) and all that type of information, and we came to the realization that we need to do more with community relations to improve our communications with all our constituent groups, to develop a strategic public-relations plan and to provide guidance to our public-relations staff,” Diehl said.

“And the reason I called this special meeting was originally we were going to discuss the idea of creating another position on staff, and we wanted to have sufficient time for the administration to post that job opening and begin the interview process because there is some urgency with all the other school districts conducting interviews at this point. Since calling the meeting, we were able to get some information from UNICOM•ARC that I think would be more cost effective to us as far as giving us what we’re looking for with community relations and public relations. And from that standpoint, I’d like to have Jerry address that idea and we’ll go from there,” he added.

Chambers said, “Just to reiterate what Tom said, you’ll recall during the superintendent’s report (on April 19) we talked about several things, one of those being that community engagement needs to continue and not stop and start. We’ve discussed that several times — not necessarily at board meetings, but sometimes at community-engagement meetings and those kinds of sessions with UNICOM•ARC.

“And it seems that all of us buy into that, and when Tom and I discussed some options as the spring was getting late and, in fact, as a I mentioned (earlier) about principals, it’s good to have as many decisions made as early as possible for next school year because you get into a situation where you’re not as competitive for the best service or best person as you would be.

“So the more we’ve discussed it and the more we’ve got reaction I think from the administration the last couple of days, the Central Office team, it was evident that maybe we should wait until next spring and do a very deliberate and open discussion of options for school/community relations or maybe even a new title — Department of Communication Services.

“We had a lot of different discussions … and I think that the feeling now is that perhaps as we’re doing this community engagement with UNICOM•ARC, the fact that Dan Burns (of UNICOM•ARC) did much of this very effectively for Rockwood School District on or off for 27 years, that he would be a natural to work with our School/Community Relations Department, people like me, people like (incoming Superintendent) Terry Noble and the rest of our Central Office team and even board members in trying to create the best outreach program for community relations that a school district could possibly have. So it’s our feeling the administration can support adding this to our contract — an amended contract with UNICOM•ARC for 2007-2008.”

Board member Cindy Christopher said, “… I don’t think I understand adding to a contract … If there’s a contract to be added to, we don’t have any information on that. Are you talking about doing that next spring?”

Diehl said, “Well, it would actually be …”

Christopher interjected, “I don’t think I’m following what you’re saying.”

Diehl continued, “Beginning July 1 that we would have them on board. What UNICOM•ARC offered that I thought was most effective would be that we would have the services of Dan Burns on a full-time basis for a one-year period for about $6,500 per month and that we wouldn’t have to pay benefits. And we would have his expertise to lead our public-communications effort, to develop a strategic plan with our staff, help establish job descriptions that clearly define what everyone’s responsibilities are, to revamp our communication tools and work on the image that we have in the community.

“And I don’t think we’d be able to hire anyone with more expertise and experience — and successful experience — in the time frame that we’re kind of compressed into now, and I think that would give us an opportunity and UNICOM•ARC would work with us as far as perhaps to search, if we wanted to do so, as we look to expand our communication effort. And so my recommendation was to go forward with UNICOM•ARC for that year.”

Board Secretary Micheal Ocello asked, “Is this 6,500 (dollars) on top of the 5,000 (dollars) we’re already paying them right now? We’re paying them 5,000 a month right now …”

Christopher interjected, “Plus expenses.”

Ocello continued, “To help us with the community-engagement process. Is this in addition to that?”

Diehl said, “I’ve got to get that information. I’m sorry, and I think what we’ll do is delay a decision on it since the urgency isn’t quite as pressing since we’re not going to create a position. But I just got the information from a phone call and failed to clarify that information.”

Christopher said, “OK. I mean we already have like strategic plans. We already have job descriptions. We already have a lot of the things that I just heard you say. This district has and it probably does need to be tweaked — we would look at things all the time and review them and that’s the right thing to do administratively. However, I would feel that it would be much wiser to wait until after July 1 when Terry Noble is on board and give him a chance — I mean we still have a contract with UNICOM until the end of December, as I recall, to do the community engagement. So at some point we’re going to have to look at that contract anyway, if we need to extend that. Is that correct?”

Diehl said, “Correct.”

Christopher said, “… So we’re going to have to go back and look at that contract be-cause we’ve already scheduled community engagement beyond December of this year.

“So we’re going to have to go back and look at that contract anyway. I would feel better about looking at the whole — let’s look at a whole new contract or an extension of what we already have and look at, and by that time let’s do some research because there’s a lot of this stuff we’ve already got.”

Diehl said, “Well, I guess my reaction would be that we need work in way of implementation of a strategic plan and we need …”

Christopher interjected, “We already have a strategic plan, though, Tom.”

Diehl continued, “We need to be more effective at our communications with the community, and I just saw this as a weakness we had to address …”

Regarding UNICOM•ARC, board member Larry Felton later asked, “… If they’re going to take a look at the public relations community end of it, and I know there’s been some discussions of looking at how the central staff, central organization is set up — how would those work in conjunction?”

Diehl said, “OK. As we discussed it, UNICOM•ARC in this particular process would actually just run our public-relations effort for the coming year and then they would be the ones that would — or Dan Burns would be the one that would work with Terry Noble and the Central Office team, and he would put in place everything we need to move ourselves forward …”

Chambers later noted he and Diehl wanted the board to vote on whether to pursue further discussions with UNICOM•ARC, but board Vice President Karl Frank Jr. said he didn’t believe a vote was necessary.

“… I don’t think that a vote’s necessary … because it’s so hard to say what we’re going to do. I think we need to have a firmer idea of what we’re doing. I just think we need to have something more in front of us,” Frank said.

Diehl asked, “But you do want the information?”

Frank said, “I do want the information, absolutely. Yeah. But I don’t think we necessarily need a vote.”

Ocello said, “… I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little concerned at this stage of the game of getting too far down that road. I mean it’s another $80,000 … We do have somebody in PR already. We do have UNICOM hired to help us with what we are doing with the community. We do have these people and that process. So I just want to make sure that I’m very clear — if it’s adding $1,500 and what you’re saying is we’re going from $5,000 to (an additional) $1,500, that’s one thing. If we’re saying we’re going from $5,000 to $11,500, that’s something different. And to me the real question here is we brought UNICOM on. They gave us this outline of how we should proceed, and I think we were very open to all of their recommendations and everything they wanted. And we’re a few months into this and now we’re being told: Well, in addition to what you’ve done, now we need to add this ….”

Diehl responded that the recommendation is not being made by UNICOM•ARC representatives, but in response to questions he posed to them.

Ocello said, “They’re the professionals. I guess my point is if they’re the ones who are coming to the table and I wish they were here because I would ask them the question directly — they came in to present us with a program of how we’re going to do community engagement because I’m one of those people who’ve been really strong about we need to do this and I think it’s important. But I’m just kind of curious why now we’re talking another $80,000?”

Diehl said, “Well, this is going beyond just the community-engagement process itself.”

Ocello said, “But Tom, that was all part of it. That was all part of our public image and what we’re doing, and if our PR department, as an example, or whatever department we should call this, if they’re not doing their job the way they’re supposed to, then I think that part of that $5,000 a month they ought to tell us so we can straighten them out.

“And I’m not a professional to say whether they are or they aren’t, but if they aren’t, then do we have the tools inside to fix it before we spend 80 grand?” the board secretary added.

Ocello suggested having representatives of UNICOM•ARC discuss the issue with the board, so board members can ask questions firsthand. Christopher also wanted Noble present.

Ocello later asked, “I would like to know why this was an emergency meeting? …”

Diehl said, “… It was an emergency meeting at the point that we were thinking of creating a position on staff and we wanted to be able to start the interview process and not lose all of April and May, that timing be-cause remember what we ran into last year when we started late in our superintendent hunt? Again, we got a similar situation in that we wanted to post the position and try and fill it for July 1. So the emergency kind of went away when the opportunity with UNICOM•ARC presented itself … but at the point it was kind of late to …”

Christopher interjected, “You can always cancel a meeting, Tom.”