Mehlville school district makes strides in communicating, but improvement still needed, Noble says

UNICOM proposing to assist in hiring of district communications professional

By MIKE ANTHONY

While the Mehlville School District has made strides in communicating with the public, more improvement is necessary, according to Superintendent Terry Noble.

In fact, Noble believes that improving communication with the public should be a top priority. To that end, he plans to recommend the Board of Education extend for six months its relationship with UNICOM•ARC. The consulting firm was hired in November 2006 to conduct a community survey and assist the school district with a public-engagement program that ultimately became COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

The Board of Education voted last August to revise its contract with UNICOM to have the firm assist and guide the district’s public-relations department through June 30.

The revised pact also called for the firm to complete a communications audit and formulate a strategic plan for improvement of the school/community relations program.

Between its services for COMPASS and the school district’s public-relations department, UNICOM currently is being paid a total of $132,000.

Jennifer Rowles Volk of UNICOM recently presented the results of the communications audit to the Board of Education along with an overview of the communications plan the firm is recommending.

Describing the audit, she said, “… It’s actually an analysis of everything that your district does as far as communications, whether that’s internal, external — every little bit of information and communication that goes on in your community. It’s really a picture of all of your policies, your publications, everything that’s out there …”

Information for the audit was gathered through focus groups and online surveys involving hundreds of community members, parents and staff. The district’s communications practices and methods also were reviewed.

During the April 22 presentation of the communication audit’s overall findings, Volk told the board, “… After taking all of these pieces and combining them all together, first thing is we found that your School and Community Relations Department is just woefully understaffed.

“If you look at other school districts that are close to your size, the departments are quite a bit larger. And the amount of things that need to happen within this department that are in your plan and things like that require a staff of at least four or five people to get them done, the level of which you would expect for a high-performing school district in the communications program.”

Other overall findings included:

• “Communications activities do not consistently support the mission and goals of the district.”

• “Publications and external communications do not portray a professional image for the district.”

• “The Mehlville Messenger is well read, but consideration should be given to mailing it to all homes and businesses in the district.”

• “There is no formalized internal communication.”

The communications plan recommended by UNICOM is based on the audit findings and communications best practices.

“… The audit, the purpose of that, is to point out the gaps. So here’s what is and here’s what we could be doing. And the plan gives you some guidelines on how to close those gaps and how to implement these things,” Volk said. “I want to start off with saying that this communications plan … cannot be implemented overnight. There are so many things in here, realistically I think it would take any school district five or six years to get through here and implement every single strategy that we have listed in here. So it’s really up to the district to decide where are our key areas and what do we need to focus on first …”

The district currently is without a communications director as the school board recently voted not to renew Patrick Wallace’s contract for the 2008-2009 school year.

Wallace had served as director of school/community relations since November 2000. His last day with the district was April 22 and he has been placed on paid administrative leave through June 30.

As director of school/community relations, Wallace was paid $74,618.

In a letter to Noble, Rod Wright of UNICOM wrote that his firm proposes:

• “Continuing to provide one of our professional staff members for 20 hours a week to guide the overall communications program.”

• “Assisting the district in hiring, by no later than July 1, a communications professional who will start no later than July 15.”

• “Mentoring and training this new communications professional in hopes that he or she can grow into one of the leadership positions outlined in the communications plan.”

• “Providing guidance to district administration and Board of Education regarding communications matters.”

Wright also wrote, “It is our view that there are many talented communications professionals in the marketplace that, with proper training and mentoring, can grow into an outstanding leader for the Mehlville School District’s communications department. By taking this cost-effective approach, we can keep the starting salary for this professional in the $50,000 to $60,000 range — much less than areawide salaries for director of communications positions that often range at or above $100,000.

“We can then train, mentor and evaluate this new employee, then determine at the end of six months how she or he fits into the staffing recommended in our communications plan. By that time, COMPASS will be complete, we will know the degree to which COMPASS recommendations are embraced by the community, so we can also decide upon next steps for implementation of the communications plan,” Wright stated in his letter.

UNICOM proposes a monthly fee of $6,000 beginning July 1 and continuing through Dec. 30.

“This is one half of our current monthly fee for service,” Wright wrote.

Noble said Friday that he welcomes the opportunity for the district to continue its relationship with UNICOM.

“… We’re not communicating well enough, and no matter how hard we try, we’re still not communicating well enough,” he said. “And I know they’re right. Even if we’re communicating with the people sitting in the room at the time, they want to know how we’re going to communicate with the ones that aren’t here and how do we reach these other audiences?

“So UNICOM’s brought a lot of recommendations to us, a lot of good strategies, things that we’ve never really tried here before, and by having them around another six months and having them working directly with our new director, whoever that is, we’ll make sure that some of those are implemented, and there will be a good understanding of what the plan is for the future.

“Of course, we’ll want this person’s own personal — whoever that person is — have their own personal input into as well, but as I told the board, I really would be very appreciative of the opportunity to work with UNICOM for another six months during this transition period to make this be a top priority. It’s got to be a top priority because I hear more — even with everything else we have going on in this district, that’s the one thing that I hear more of than anything else is we’ve got to communicate better,” he said.

The Board of Education is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. today — May 15 — at the John Cary Early Childhood Center, 3155 Koch Road. Among the items to be considered is UNICOM’s proposal.

Of that proposal, Noble said, “I feel confident that the board’s going to be receptive to it.”