Mehlville school board votes unanimously to revise contract with UNICOM•ARC

Pact an investment to improve district’s public relations, superintendent says

By BURKE WASSON

To assist the Mehlville School District’s School/Community Relations Office and develop a strategic plan for better communication with residents, the Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve a revised contract with consulting firm UNICOM•ARC.

UNICOM•ARC, which was hired in November to facilitate the district’s public-engagement program, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — now will be paid an additional $77,000 for a total of $132,000.

UNICOM•ARC will increase its monthly fee to $12,000 from Aug. 1 through June 30, according to the revised contract.

While some residents at last week’s board meeting and open forum were concerned with the cost of UNICOM•ARC’s revised contract of $77,000 on top of School/Community Relations Director Patrick Wallace’s $73,618 salary, Superintendent Terry Noble said he views the consulting firm’s revised contract not as a cost, but an investment to improve the district.

Specifically, Noble said the firm should be able to provide more leadership and ideas than the district’s School/Community Relations Office has initiated.

“I think what we’re needing is for more initiation of strategies and ideas that are brought to us from that department as opposed to a situation where we make requests for something to get done,” he said. “We need expert leadership in that area that will help direct and guide all the rest of us. When I say the rest of us, I mean the board and the staff. We need guidance and direction.”

In the district’s revised contract with UNICOM•ARC, the School/Community Relations Department will be joined on site by UNICOM staff member Jennifer Volk, who is the former director of communications of the Rockwood School District. Volk will be paid for the equivalent of 20 hours per week and is estimated to be on site at the district’s Administration Building for 75 to 100 hours per month.

The department will also benefit from UNICOM•ARC consultants Rod Wright, Dan Burns and John Siemers, who is the former director of communications of the Parkway School District.

Under the revised contract, the firm will:

• Provide day-to-day guidance and direction for the School/Community Relations Department.

• Serve as a mentor to Wallace.

• Assess the effectiveness of the existing school/community relations program.

• Complete an audit and formulate a strategic plan for improvement of the school/community relations program.

• Provide additional clerical assistance when current staff is insufficient to meet needed requirements. Wallace’s assistant, Kathy Smith, recently left the Mehlville School District to become director of community and public relations for the Valley Park School District. Dan Burns of UNICOM•ARC last week said of the department’s staffing: “When you compare your school district to others of comparable size, you’re woefully inadequate in terms of staffing, in terms of the emphasis and focus that you’re placing on communication.”

• Conduct an electronic survey of parents regarding the accessibility and readability of the Mehlville Messenger through the current mode of distribution. The school board recently opted to have the Post-Dispatch/Suburban Journals print and distribute the newsletter on a month-to-month basis, deciding against renewing a one-year contract with the Post and Journals.

• Serve in an advisory capacity to Noble.

As for the entire $132,000 that the district will pay the firm, Mehlville will receive:

• Completion of work on COMPASS.

• A comprehensive communications plan.

• Involvement of four senior communications professionals, including three who have direct experience working in a school-district communications department.

But resident Cindy Martin told the board at last week’s open forum, “I have canvassed through every bond issue that we’ve ever floated and every tax levy. And time and time again, all I’ve ever heard is you can’t trust them. They always spend money and they’re not responsible. I look at this and I wonder if we’re being responsible. I’m not saying that it’s not a good idea. But maybe we should wait. And when Mr. Wallace’s contract comes up with the district at the end of the year, maybe think about that and let them come on board then. I don’t see what it says they (UNICOM•ARC) are contributing.

“Are they going to be doing the job that he’s doing right now? Are they going to write press releases? Are they going to go to the schools and videotape things? And is he going to be doing the same thing? It seems like we’re paying two salaries or two sums of money for one position or one opportunity. I think that I would much rather see my $77,000, my percentage that I pay taxes as a district parent go to the classroom, to a teacher salary or to technology.

“At the end of Mr. Wallace’s contract, if you don’t feel like he’s doing the job that you like him to do, maybe I think that’s the time to talk about a consultant or somebody else to do a better job. I am just perplexed that we would want to try to spend … unless I’m reading it wrong … spending two times the money. That’s just my feeling. I think that if we ever want to get another bond issue passed in this district, we need to be responsible. And to pay two sums of money like that doesn’t seem responsible to me.”

Noble said because UNICOM•ARC will provide services now to improve the School/Community Relations Department and also develop a long-term strategic plan for better communication, he still views the revised contract with the consultant as not a cost, but an investment.

“Nearly everything we devote resources to in the school district, you can look upon it as a cost,” he said. “But overall, the appropriate way to look at it is as an investment in the education of our kids. And sometimes it’s easier to point to that than others. I realize that. And this contract with UNICOM•ARC might be one of those where you might want to say, ‘Why do you have to pay that amount of money to get that kind of help or what are you hoping to achieve?’ But the end result would be we feel like the services they’re going to provide for us are going to be able to help us develop a strategic plan for improvement for that program. They’re going to compare what we do to what they feel like are the industry standards and see where we fall short. But my guess is, without having that information, we need to make sure that we’re reaching more people period and provide opportunities for two-way communication.”

Wright also told board members last week that he is confident his firm can not only help the district’s communication now, but develop a better method for the future.

“We want to make it better now,” Wright said. “I mean, every time we’ve had this discussion, it’s been a sense, at least I remember it, of some dissatisfaction. So, kind of make it better now and enhance the program. Then also taking a longer-term look of when we walk away from here … that momentum will continue.”