Mehlville School District seeks fresh outlook, cost savings in new communications director

Unsuccessful board candidate contends communications firm UNICOM should be ‘fired’

By BURKE WASSON

To gain a fresh perspective as well as save money, the Mehlville School District is seeking a new communications director with experience outside of school districts.

Superintendent Terry Noble said that because public-relations salaries are “overinflated” in local school districts, Mehlville will seek candidates with public-relations experience in other fields for its communications director position.

He is optimistic that the move will not only result in a lower salary, but also help the district continue the improvements he says have been made since consulting firm UNICOM•ARC was employed last year to assist the Communications Department.

“I’m not concerned about the amount of experience that the person has that comes here,” Noble said. “I’m more concerned about their potential and their ability to learn from experts from the ground floor up. And that might even be better because there won’t be any bad habits.”

“… The market is overinflated in school districts. School districts are paying more for these positions than in the outside, corporate world. And there appears to be opportunities to employ some talented people from the corporate world for less salary … I would suspect that when we post this job, we will get people who are assistant directors in some of the other districts who would like to come here and maybe make that $85,000 to $90,000 salary …

“When you look at this proposal, that’s not what we’re really looking for. We’re holding to the idea of finding someone in the corporate world that can be transitioned into school communications.”

The board voted 5-0 last week to accept UNICOM’s proposal to hire a new communications director to start work by July 15 at an annual salary of $65,000 along with an assistant from UNICOM to mentor that new director from July 1 to Dec. 31 at a cost of $36,000.

Combined with $38,000 in clerical needs for the Communications Department, the total package is $139,000. Compared to the 2007-2008 school year, Noble said the district paid roughly $200,000 toward its Communications Department.

District officials say the $139,000 move approved last week is cheaper than “traditional staffing” for those needs, which would come at an annual cost of $153,000 with the new director being paid $85,000, the six-month assistant director making $30,000 and the district still paying $38,000 in clerical work.

While board member Erin Weber was excused from the May 15 meeting, board Secretary Larry Felton abstained from the 5-0 vote to accept UNICOM’s proposal. During the meeting, Felton expressed concerns about paying for an assistant director before hiring a new permanent director of the Communications Department.

The six months of $6,000 monthly assistance from UNICOM will begin July 1 and end Dec. 31. If the district wishes to stop paying for that service after a new communications director is in place, they can give 30-day notice at any time.

Board of Education President Tom Diehl said the goal behind extending UNICOM’s services with the district through the end of the year is to provide guidance and teach school-district public relations to the new communications director, who will have outside experience.

“I’ve been thoroughly impressed with UNICOM•ARC and the work they’ve done for us,” Diehl said. “Their organization, their professionalism, their ethics, they’ve brought a lot of integrity and creativity to our Communications Department. And I think that if we were to continue our relationship with them, whoever we would bring in to that role to be our permanent director, UNICOM can set the standards for them as far as what we expect out of the Communications Department and can help us in finding that person who can communicate with the public, who has the initiative to develop a professional Communications Department and to follow through on recommendations that were given to us last month.”

UNICOM 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 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.

UNICOM’s Jennifer Rolwes Volk, who has assisted the Communications Department since August, recently presented the results of the communications audit to the board along with an overview of the communications plan the firm is recommending.

Between its services for COMPASS and the district’s public-relations department, UNICOM now is being paid a total of $168,000.

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. Wallace was paid a $74,618 annual salary.

Lemay resident Linda Mooy, who in the April election finished fourth among eight candidates seeking three seats to the school board, told the board last week that because Wallace’s contract was not renewed, UNICOM also should be “fired” because it was hired to assist and mentor Wallace.

“I don’t understand why that individual was fired and why UNICOM•ARC was not fired because they had a responsibility to that person and that office,” she said. “If they did something wrong, then they did, too.”

Mooy further contended that at a November Mehlville Community Advisory Council meeting, she believes UNICOM “tried to get rid of” Wallace and that it is now “unethical” for the district to hire the firm to carry out recommendations made from the UNICOM-gathered survey and communications audit.

“By the time I got in the room (at the November meeting), somebody from UNICOM was in the room and performing a survey,” Mooy said. “And after she asked several questions, it was obvious what she was getting to. I actually felt like the point she was trying to make was she was trying to get rid of Patrick Wallace at that point in time … I finally got to the point of irritation and I said to the woman, I said I don’t feel like anybody from UNICOM should be in here conducting surveys from which their company is going to benefit. They can tweak the responses, tweak the questions, the responses, the outcome of the survey. And I said it was unethical for somebody from UNICOM to be in there that would benefit from that survey … I see that’s definitely the outcome. I don’t see how you can have UNICOM go out and conduct audits and surveys and then recommend that they get the job. That’s not ethical. In the real world, that’s not how it’s done.”

Board Vice President Micheal Ocello said later that he is impressed with UNICOM and the work that it has done for the school district.

“I think what UNICOM•ARC has done with us and I think the help they’ve given us has been phenomenal,” Ocello said. “And I think for anyone to suggest that they misrepresent numbers and they lie to get hired ought to be ashamed of themselves. Unless they’ve got some data to back that up, they shouldn’t be making those kind of comments about anyone’s integrity.”

“I don’t appreciate you making that comment to me,” Mooy interjected from the audience.

“I’m talking to the public,” Ocello said.

“You’re looking at me,” Mooy said. “And you’re talking to me.”