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A Failure to Communicate

AISD's community outreach needs to go back to school

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 8, 2013

A Failure to Communicate

Dec. 19, 2011: If you're looking for a low-water mark in Austin ISD public relations, that was it. It was the night of the vote to hand over Allan Elementary to IDEA Public Schools. There was a heavier-than-normal police presence both in and outside the board room; Eastside residents were literally left standing in the rain, while seats inside were reserved for IDEA boosters from the Valley. Under the guidance of the administration, the board majority backed the almost universally reviled plan to hand a struggling but popular neighborhood school over to the out-of-town charter group. For many, it was the perfect example of a school district blocking the community.

But it's far from the only one. The Facilities Master Plan Task Force. The Annual Aca­dem­ic and Facilities Recommendations. Single-sex schools. Big projects, greeted by the community with something between tepid disinterest and anger. Critics, both internal and external, repeated a mantra: The administration doesn't want consent, or even effective feedback – instead, just gestures of consultation. Yet, after a year of bloody conflict – over IDEA, over single-sex education, over school closures – hard lessons should have been learned. In Novem­ber, the board underwent a ballot-box purge, and after an internal review, its Public Rela­tions and Multicultural Outreach office is being restructured.

But is the top-down culture of communication in AISD just too entrenched to fix?

PRMO, under Executive Director Alex San­chez, is supposed to be the wellspring for this new era of outreach. His predecessor as communications boss, Andy Welch, was an old-school press guy. Sanchez is a marketing man; his roots in PR for pharma giant Pfizer show when he talks about messaging. He spent much of his first few months at AISD crunching numbers, analyzing data, examining district demographics. At the same time, he was dealing with a steep learning curve about Austin education politics. If he could talk to the Alex Sanchez who started as PRMO director with AISD on July 1, 2011, he said, "I'd just remind him that it was going to be as hard as I thought."

PRMO is still a new department, nominally formed from the ashes of the old Communications office. In 2010, as part of the recession-dictated cost-cutting, staff-slashing reduction in force, the district fired eight newsroom staffers – including those who had been in most regular contact with the local press. According to Sanchez, when he took over, he joined "a school district that wants to improve traditional communication – in other words, wants to get better at traditional storytelling, sharing the good news about all the great work that's happening in our schools, and a district that wants to improve the dialogue from all these diverse constituencies."

AISD Chief of Staff Mel Waxler (l) looks on as board members consider charter school issues.
AISD Chief of Staff Mel Waxler (l) looks on as board members consider charter school issues.
Photo by John Anderson

When he started, there were 12 full-time positions, and he planned for a staff of 20 to 25. As of the end of January, there are 29 positions, including three vacancies. That's dramatically more than the old eight-person Communications division, and the expansion is put down to a changing mission – one that then-Trustee Annette LoVoi warned would require a higher budget. Some of the new positions were internal transfers, such as the technicians for the district's cable Channel 22, who were previously part of media services. The big cost driver foreseen by LoVoi came with the addition of the "multicultural outreach" operation. From one perspective, it was a sign that the district was getting serious about community input. From another, it was centralizing a job that previously had been done on campuses. Most of that outreach had historically been done by so-called "parent support specialists," many of whom were laid off in the 2010 RIF.

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis says the administration made a mistake when it thought it could replace campus-based professionals with a centralized office. He said, "You can't just snap your fingers and presume the community is going to be at meetings." He called the parent support specialists "the perfect model" to reach out to parents. "If we'd have utilized them the way they were meant to be utilized five, six years ago," he said, "we would have some kind of sizable community participation in our schools."

Even more worrying was another trend: In the first 18 months of the new department's operations, 26 staff members quit. That's a catastrophic turnover; instead of an office that was building relationships, it became a revolving door. Every staffer that leaves takes with them institutional memories and personal relationships with stakeholders. Individual PRMO staff have tried to make the district a little more open – for example, by holding additional press briefings before school board meetings, or reviewing draft agendas with reporters hours before the Friday release. But these initiatives have often been launched by individuals, and when those folks leave, so do their innovations.

Too Many Tasks, Too Few People?

Last fall, administrators hit the panic button. Laura Otey, the district's former director of employee relations, was brought back from her private conflict-resolution firm and rehired by the office of Human Resources and Professional Devel­op­ment as a temporary administrator. Her sole assignment? Examine what was broken in PRMO. Chief of Staff Mel Waxler explained, "The fact that there was turnover in Mr. Sanchez's shop was not lost on anybody, particularly him, and he asked the HR department for any constructive assistance that they can provide." Otey was tasked to "build a team, to a look at the future, and give everybody in the department an opportunity to weigh in on what were the causes of the turnover." Otey issued no formal report but, said Waxler, "What she did was capture what people were saying and give us the opportunity to reflect."

So why were staff leaving? According to Waxler, Otey found "just an incredible demand for services from that department." Sanchez blames partly the workload, partly the pay. While he calls his staff passionate about education, long days, late-night meetings, and the constant stress of the ongoing wars led to burnout. And how did the workload get so intense? That's a structural question. Even now, Sanchez argues that PRMO is too small compared to other major urban school districts. Take the marketing and design department: Dallas ISD has 16 people solely dealing with pamphlets, brochures, and leaflets for parents. In Houston, there are 46 full-time employees for that function. Austin, by contrast, has no dedicated marketing and design staff.

It's a similar story with translators: Dallas, 11; Austin, only two. Yet the workload is expanding: Between September and Decem­ber 2011, PRMO received 30 requests for translation. In the same period in 2012, that rose to 77. The district is also still using external PR firms as contractors for special projects (e.g., bond development and the Facilities Master Plan Task Force) beyond their baseline tasks. Speaking in confidence, several PR professionals said they are quite happy for the work, but are a little surprised that the district cannot handle some of these projects in-house. Sanchez says that he will keep using contractors, because they remain cost-effective for one-off projects. Sanchez is now restructuring the office and recalculating what he needs to make it work. For Waxler, "There are no bad actors in this, but it's clear that we have to get better at defining specifically what services that department is going to offer, and aligning the resources that are available to them and the demands upon them." 

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and the new board
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and the new board
Photo by John Anderson

Former Trustee Mark Williams has been openly critical of PRMO's results, publicly calling the district's outreach "poor." Wil­liams, who was board president when Otey was hired, concurred with Waxler on staffing. He said, "With the number of single-issue meetings, about the school for young men or [Annual Academic and Facil­i­ties Recommendations], there's some communications person at every one of these meetings – and trying to get the PR out, they're just overwhelmed." Like San­chez, he's concerned that the district is just not competitive, especially in a growing media market like Austin. He said, "Their job load, relative to their pay, is way out of balance."

Speak No Evil

It does not help the retention problem that when PRMO misfires, it's headline-worthy – and the district's response to bad press ranges from defensive to near-farcical. Take how they've handled academic criticism. For years, Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis Director Ed Fuller, formerly of the University of Texas, has been to the district what former Super­in­tendent Pat Forgione would call "a critical friend." But when the respected education analytical and statistics expert published a report critical of the district's charter plan for Allan, Superintendent Meria Carstar­phen went on the offensive and lambasted Fuller's research methodology ("Uncontrol­led Experiments," Dec. 9, 2011). Big talk, Fuller said at the time, for a superintendent with no published research articles. Then there was the bizarre episode of the district's clipping service ("AISD: Speak Softly," July 3, 2012). Like many agencies, AISD sends a daily news digest to senior staff. Last May, some recipients complained there were too many "negative" stories in the selection. Rather than seeing that as a reason for the district to pause for introspection, Carstarphen responded that the staff would look for more positive stories.

Following much bitter experience and Otey's recommendations, Sanchez's office has begun implementing change, such as hiring a dedicated multicultural outreach coordinator. It has also undoubtedly had some successes in building up new channels of communication; top of the list was one of the main reasons AISD hired Sanchez in the first place. When he was working for Denver ISD, Sanchez launched Educa, a weekly Spanish-language radio show. His demographic studies showed that Austin needed a similar outreach project; of the total district population of 86,697 students, roughly 30,000 are Hispanic kids whose families speak Spanish as a first language. That's a demographic the district always has a tough time engaging. The quickest way to reach them is to use the media they consume most often. Sanchez said, "We learned that the Spanish-dominant adult listens to radio on average nine hours a day," and by partnering with local radio stations, "we've been able to share information about recent policy changes, the ongoing input process around the AAFRs. For some of these communities, this may be the first time that they've heard about the board of trustees, about the work that they're doing."

Sanchez has also tried to strengthen ties with groups like Austin Voices for Education and Youth, another body with a long history as another of Forgione's "critical friends." With his trademark diplomacy, Austin Voices Director Allen Weeks said, "After last year, when things didn't go so well, the district reached out to Austin Voices and other possible partners that could help change the dynamic." His primary concern remains school improvement, and he fears that the big arguments distracted from the essential work. Weeks said, "You get so locked into the struggle that you're not able to concentrate on the nuts and bolts, the everyday topics of how do you improve attendance and how do you improve safety, how do you offer the options for kids at the high school and middle school level that keep them in school."

Weeks agrees with Sanchez that the radio effort has helped reach historically underserved populations, and that's reflected by meeting attendance. "You can work in a community for 10 years," he said, "and there are certain people that you don't know about, you don't reach, and they never come to a meeting. And then they listen to a radio show one Saturday morning, and they turn up to the next meeting." The next step, he added, is getting them involved and giving them real reasons to stick around – and that's where the parent support specialists were so important. Yet, the specialists who remain are still overstretched post-RIF, and the multicultural outreach division of PRMO is still small and centralized.

Talk Loud, Hear Nothing

In all these discussions, there's a much deeper concern: that the district doesn't really care what the community says. Two narratives have emerged. If the district presents a plan and the community supports it, then that's fine. If the community does not support it, then the administration starts framing the issue as a complex one and talking about "options" and "parental choice" – the same buzzwords used by Repub­lican politicians boosting charters and vouchers. That second scenario is what happened with IDEA Allan, and it's what happened with the recently passed plan to turn Pearce and Garcia middle schools into single-sex campuses. Moreover, there have been persistent criticisms that the district waits too long to consult, that everything feels like a "done deal." That's when the community bites back.

Alex Sanchez, director of the Public Relations and Multicultural Outreach office
Alex Sanchez, director of the Public Relations and Multicultural Outreach office
Photo by Jana Birchum

PRIDE of the Eastside spokesman Vin­cent Tovar became politically active because of the district pattern – he was so appalled by how administrators were manhandling the Allan community that he could no longer sit on the sidelines. He said, "Outreach to them means that they've invited people to meetings and discussed their proposals. It's a box to check on their to-do list so they can move on with whatever proposals they have." PRMO staff can only communicate as much as the district allows, and some meetings are little more than PowerPoint presentations. Moreover, as with Allan, by the time families find out, it appears that the decision has already been made. That has damaged how the community sees the administration and, Tovar said, "Authenti­ci­ty and trust are still huge holes, and I don't see those holes being filled quickly or at all." When community members do speak out, or even just try to become better informed, he said, "Those parents are either silenced, labeled troublemakers, or marginalized in their own school community."

For Tovar, it's all about the district presuming that it has delivered its message – and that's sufficient. That's an impression that even the board of trustees occasionally gets. Current and former trustees have fought publicly and behind the scenes with the administration about the clarity and volume of information they receive on the dais and at briefings. Nor is the board without its critics on communications, as constituents have often faced great difficulty contacting trustees, with most inquiries being filtered through the single board secretary. As for board meetings, that's a decades-old fight. With only 30 two-minute slots in Citizens Communication, residents often have to rise before dawn and trudge to the Carruth Administration Center on West Sixth to sign up for that night's meeting. Former President Mark Williams was a rules martinet, hanging on the clock and refusing the standard courtesy of letting speakers donate their time to one another. Many longtime board watchers are waiting to see whether the new president, Vince Torres, fixes anything.

The district may not have a choice in learning how to listen. A formal complaint contends that AISD is violating both state law and its own policies. Under Texas Education Code, school-based Campus Advisory Commissions must "be involved in decisions in the areas of planning, budgeting, curriculum, staffing patterns, staff development, and school organization." The district's own bylaws for CACs states that they are intended to "provide assistance to the Principal in reviewing district and campus data and in preparing the annual Campus Improvement Plan."

On Oct. 11, 2012, Eastside Memorial CAC member Steve Swanson and Eastside mentoring program volunteer Robert Martinez filed a complaint with the district, alleging it had violated the state code when it developed the Eastside Memorial Campus Improve­­ment Program. State law requires CAC involvement with designing a CIP, but they claim that Swanson "never saw CIP planning, nor was he able to participate. Instead, the CAC was given a plan that was already completed." The petitioners have already had administrative hearings with Chief Performance Officer Bill Caritj and former general counsel Waxler. Swanson and Martinez's attorney, Brian McGiverin, said, "Our contention is that the Texas Education Code and AISD policy are good; we would just like district staff to operate in accordance with them."

This is not just about Eastside; McGiv­er­in argues that supporting testimony proves "this modus operandi is very prevalent across AISD." The reactions are not from random community members or a single campus, but from engaged parents and education advocates furious about the district's top-down approach. In video testimony submitted for the appeal, Lorie Barzano of the Coalition to Strengthen Austin Urban Schools said bluntly that "AISD was not about coming in and having a conversation." District Advisory Commission member Toni Raynor savaged the district for keeping the Eastside community in the dark about IDEA Allan. Finally, Tovar laid out the painful forced exile of a whole neighborhood from its neighborhood school.

At the core of the complaints is the facilities planning process, and McGiverin calls the IDEA Allan experience "a very good example of very fundamental repurposing at a school campus without any authentic community engagement." However, some other examples are almost surreal. For example, in an attempt to cut down on truancy, in 2011 the administration ran a pilot project at Eastside Memorial using voluntary GPS monitoring to track students. Unfortunately, no one told the CAC that campus kids had been LoJacked. McGiverin said, "The Campus Advisory Committee didn't know about it until there was a radio news story saying they had just completed a yearlong trial."

The inevitable question arises: Who is to blame for this closed, top-down culture? Carstarphen, who has undoubtedly set a confrontational tone with the community? Waxler, who – in his former role as general counsel – presented a consistently conservative view of board operations, held back meeting agendas to the last legal second for compliance with state open meetings rules, and interpreted anti-lobbying rules so strictly that he made AISD trustees and staff profoundly wary of speaking out around legislators? Or Sanchez, who runs an office that can't retain its staff?

More immediately, has the district really learned any lessons from the 2011 IDEA experience? If their two big upcoming agenda items are any indication, the answer is no. First, the district is planning an $890 million bond for May 2013: With less than three months to prepare and sell the bond to voters, some trustees are worried that the administration has badly misread the calendar and the electorate. Then there's the recent Pearce/Garcia single-sex decision. Sanchez's shop has until Fall 2014 to prepare the neighborhood for that change. EA's Zarifis argues that it's already too late, and the district is heading for another community battle over a controversial plan with only weak neighborhood support. "Until the district and the community can come to some agreement about what communication means and looks like, we're going to continue to misstep. ... The district doesn't need to have big meetings every week and have searchlights on it, but there has to be something that the community will accept that – yes, you've done your work."

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