Sequoia Union High School District officials are pushing back against a draft communications plan proposed recently by a San Francisco public relations firm.
The two-page "media protocol" proposed in a 16-page plan prepared by Voler Strategic Advisors would restrict opportunities for staff, faculty members and members of the board to talk to reporters.
"While board members may speak with the press whenever they would like," the proposed protocol says, "we strongly recommend allowing us to screen calls (so) the story is not potentially detrimental to the initiating board member or to the District as a whole."
The protocol would forbid faculty and staff from talking with reporters, though it wasn't clear whether such conversations could take place after obtaining permission. Conversations that are "off the record" – a term that Voler defines incorrectly as an interview in which the interviewee remains anonymous – would be expressly forbidden.
Such interviews are actually referred to as "on background." Anything said off the record to a reporter cannot be used in a story, but can provide leads for further investigation.
In a follow-up to a presentation from Voler chief executive Perla Rodriguez at a recent board meeting, board member Alan Sarver commented: "I think we need to be clear on our speech and our responsibility on how we do that, but something that seems like, to an extent, narrow marching orders (in the plan) is a little bit of a concern. So, I think we want to work through that."
Thanking Mr. Sarver for the feedback and saying she "understands" his perspective, Ms. Rodriguez pushed back. "Many times you have reporters calling and there's no one to answer that call, there's no one to bring out the different perspectives, and so really the idea is to have a professional face to whatever issue that the district faces," she said.
Board President Chris Thomsen noted to Ms. Rodriguez that obligations of transparency and trust for a government agency may differ from those of a private institution, which has every right to control its message.
Asked in an interview about Ms. Rodriguez's rebuttal, Mr. Thomsen said, "Generally, the district must be careful about being perceived as spinning something because it would affect the credibility with the press and the community."
Superintendent Mary Streshly said in an interview that the policies for interacting with the press in the current governance handbook – that the board president and the superintendent can speak for the district and that individual board members have a responsibility to identify their personal viewpoints as such – are stated "very clearly."
Board member Carrie DuBois declined to comment for this story, citing a personal situation that was demanding of her time. Board member Georgia Jack did not respond to an interview request. Board member Allen Weiner was absent from the meeting and did not hear Ms. Rodriguez's presentation.
The district has been taking steps to address communication with the nine elementary and middle school districts whose students are eligible to attend its high schools.
The board approved an $8,000-per-month, 10-month contract with Voler in September. And in January the district hired Ana Maria Pulido, an elected member of the Ravenswood City School District board, to be the district's public relations spokeswoman at an annual salary of about $100,000.
Asked about the contract, Mr. Thomsen said he sees a need for the district to deepen its expertise and expand its efforts in communicating, particularly during a crisis –> such as the lockdown recently at M-A – and in working with the press.
"I believe the district has several important stories that will be of interest to the community," he said in an email. At the top of his list, the curriculum for the new TIDE Academy magnet high school under construction in Menlo Park, discussions with the city of Menlo Park and Facebook about impacts of the company's development on public schools, and the district's new accountability plan.
Voler, in concert with Ms. Pulido, has been helping the district develop a "broader media presence," including having school principals interviewed on Spanish language networks such as Telemundo and Univision, Superintendent Streshly said.
"We really wanted to (make sure) people are listening and know who we are," she said. "We're really trying to grab media that hits smaller neighborhoods. (Voler) helps us organize and decide where to focus."
The district's communication priorities include redesigning and maintaining the website, "a big undertaking," Ms. Streshly said, adding that she considers the website "not user-friendly." The district receives "a lot of input" from people saying "they really can't navigate," she said.
"The fundamental reason for Voler to help with communications is to field more questions and to make sure the information is where parents need it to be," she said. The board has a deep desire to be responsive to our communities, she said. "It's very difficult because we have nine different communities that we serve."
Newsletters to those communities are another form of outreach. The newsletters have been quarterly but will be monthly, she said.
But the newsletters are mostly electronic – hard copies are available – and there continues to be a digital divide, Ms. Streshly said. The district is working on increasing the number of Wi-Fi hot spots, she said. A pilot program distributed laptop computers to all students –> and thus to their families – in the AVID college-preparation tutoring program.
The district may be buying more laptops for low-income students, but funding is uncertain. Ms. Streshly said she's waiting to hear what the governor says about education funding in the May revision of the state budget.