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Thursday, June 26, 2003 02:20 pm

PR to the rescue

District 186’s plan to rebuild credibility

Last year, when Springfield voters overwhelmingly rejected a property-tax increase meant to benefit the public schools, District 186 officials began to realize they'd lost what little respect they had in the community. It didn't help when, after their defeat at the polls, they immediately laid off teachers and librarians, cutting programs district-wide. Then they raised millions of dollars for building improvements by issuing bonds that didn't require public approval.

In a case of understatement, a district report earlier this year acknowledged, "Public relations continue to be a challenge." Soon after taking office in May, the new school board hired a PR firm.

That company, Unicom-Arc of St. Louis, also does market research. It will be paid about $45,000 from a private grant. Unicom got down to work last Thursday, interviewing dozens of school officials, parents, and civic and business leaders who met in focus groups at the Illinois Education Association's new Professional Development Center just west of Veterans Parkway on Liberty Drive. The groups' input is supposed to guide a district-appointed committee this fall, when larger meetings of volunteers will start to develop a ten-year plan for the schools. Unicom will help facilitate the entire process.

Unicom contacted the district shortly after the failed referendum, says 186 spokesperson Carol Votsmier. "They called and said we missed a step while campaigning." The missed step was asking the public for ideas. "We asked if certain issues would push people to support a referendum and crafted a campaign based on the responses," Votsmier says. "But it was nothing like having community meetings a year before the vote and basing a campaign on the community's needs."

New board member Cindy Tate says she's met with cynicism when telling constituents of the plan to hire the PR consultant: "Oh, another smoke and mirrors game?"

"Nobody wants to be sold anything," says Dan Burns of Unicom. "We say 'sell' is a dirty word." Burns told school board members in one of the focus groups, "The best thing you can do as a new board is to turn it over to the people."

"We want to bring as many people as possible to the table," he says. "We want people to discover what the challenges are. What are the opportunities? What constrains us from being all we can be as a school district? How do we stack up with regard to funding, class size, technology, and quality of facilities compared to other districts? Through studying these issues, people tend to discover where the gaps are. Then they have to ask, 'Do we as a community want to do whatever is possible to close those gaps.'"

That's easier said than done. As Burns brought up to school board members at their focus group, "You'll find at times that it's not clear and pretty."

Bringing everyone to the table can be difficult in Springfield. The focus groups Unicom met with last Thursday were hardly representative of the district. Votsmier says these participants were selected by principals, teachers, union leaders, the chamber of commerce, the senior center, and various community organizations. But in the sessions for parents, African-Americans accounted for only one or two people in every group. The groups were composed of 6 to 8 members. More than a third of the district's students are African-American.

"We invited the same number of majority and minority parents to participate," says Votsmier. Participation was by invitation only. "From my notes, I show nine African-American parents who RSVP'd 'yes.' Of those, four came. Two parents of Middle Eastern descent also participated." Votsmier says that for the community-wide sessions beginning in September the district will run an ad campaign to invite as many people as possible.

"In the long run, it would help to have more people," says Chris Lawrence, one of the four African-American parents who showed. Lawrence, 36, has an eight-year-old at Iles Elementary and a two-year-old ready for the district's Early Start program. Lawrence said he called the district after learning about the focus groups and asked to be invited. "I'm a parent. I'd like to think I'm reasonably intelligent and have some ideas." Lawrence says he has high hopes for what's being called Unicom's "public engagement" project. "Citizen advisory groups are the wave of the future," he says. "They make voters aware of their powers."

Unicom has helped school districts in Illinois and Missouri work better with the public. It has also helped districts pass referendums, claiming an 80 percent success rate. It's sometimes accused of doing more PR than public engagement.

"Unicom-Arc is a very good, very professional, and very successful public relations agency that focuses on the education industry," says Kevin Killion, director of Illinois Loop, an organization claiming more than 200 statewide members who support back-to-the-basics public education. "Let's be clear: Unicom is a PR shop. They are in business to help their clients achieve immediate goals, such as passing referenda."

Stocks-Smith has been one of District 186's most vocal critics, but she has faith in Unicom. Past president of the Springfield chapter of Parents for Public Schools and an unsuccessful school board candidate last spring, Stocks-Smith was on the committee recommending that the school board hire the company.

"These are not hired public relations guns," Stocks-Smith says. "One of the primary reasons for recommending them was that they specialize in research and public engagement. I campaigned on public engagement, which, at its core, is supposed to be community-driven. Unicom is supposed to help the district let the community decide and determine the overall vision and direction."

At least one school board member from a district Unicom failed to help believes hiring the company wasn't a mistake. Decatur's school district asked Unicom to help it pass a referendum in 1998. The referendum, asking permission to issue $68 million in construction bonds, failed. In 1999, the district went to voters again, this time without Unicom, and still failed. It took two more tries--after the board changed from bonds to a tax increase--for voters to finally approve a referendum. But it was Unicom's initial work that marked a turning point for the district, says Decatur school board member Jackie Goetter.

"Even though the referendum didn't pass, I believe Unicom did an excellent job laying the groundwork for the referendum that did pass."

More importantly, Goetter says, Unicom changed the way she related to the public. "I think sometimes we make erroneous assumptions as officials. Unicom was a start for me as a board member to get the community involved in public education."

Perhaps it's not too late for District 186.

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