Palo Alto school board split on communications coordinator position | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto school board split on communications coordinator position

District has "felt the loss" in absence of dedicated spokesperson, superintendent says

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The Palo Alto school board voted 3-2 on Tuesday evening to approve the creation of a full-time communications coordinator position, with the board's two newest members not convinced that the job description as is will address the district's most pressing communication needs.

Board President Melissa Baten Caswell, Vice President Heidi Emberling and trustee Camille Townsend voted in favor of the position, while members Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey dissented. Superintendent Max McGee had initially proposed the district find a part-time person to fill the vacancy left when district spokeswoman Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley resigned in June, but said Tuesday that after discussions with his leadership team, it became clear that a full-time person is needed.

McGee said in the absence of a designated communications person, the district has struggled to meet several media requests by deadline and to distribute critical information to schools in a timely manner. He said he worries that "sooner or later, we're going to have an oversight that's critical."

School principals also stressed to McGee their reliance on the previous communications coordinator for support in writing messages to their school communities on both a day-to-day basis and in crisis or emergency situations.

Nancy Coffey, president of the Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA), also expressed her organization's support for the full-time position, reading a letter signed by PAMA leadership.

"Our district has over 12,000 students representing more than 8,500 households who depend on information from our 1,664 employees at our preschool, 13 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, adult school and hospital school," Coffey told the board. "In the interest of timely, consistent and transparent communication with our community, we need a point person to coordinate our complex organization's communication efforts, both internally and externally."

Dauber and Godfrey, however, questioned the value of reproducing the role and responsibilities of the previous communications coordinator.

"One potential problem with a communications officer, which I think has been realized to some extent in the past, is a focus on the presentation of the district in a positive light as opposed to in an accurate or clear light," Dauber said.

"I haven't seen in its execution an urgency around it that is consistent with the other educational goals that we could be serving with these dollars," he added, pointing to Kappeler-Hurley's $143,000 annual salary.

Dauber was also critical of the position during the last school year when McGee tested out a new communications strategy, asking Kappeler-Hurley to each week gather and rank all media coverage about the district as either a "win," "lose," or "tie."

Kappeler-Hurley told the Weekly in December that a story categorized as a win successfully shared the "good work that the district is doing" and might have been the result of a press release she sent out. What was deemed a tie was more subjective, she said. The practice was considered a metric for one of the board's five overarching goals for the 2014-15 year: "to anticipate, respond, and promptly resolve distracting and disruptive issues in order to maintain focus on the District's vision."

At the time, Dauber urged McGee to discontinue the practice.

"I don't think that it really reflects our communications strategy well to try to categorize media reports (as) positive, negative and neutral, because I think it leads us into decisions that media coverage is negative not because it's inaccurate, necessarily — which I think should be our standard — but because it's critical," Dauber said at the Dec. 9 board meeting.

Several months later, in March, McGee made a "strategic decision" to end the media tabulation practice.

Godfrey said Tuesday night that she expects the district's new associate superintendent, Markus Autrey, to serve as a high-level spokesman for the district. (His responsibilities, according to a job description, include to "act as the key spokesperson for assigned areas of responsibility" and to "communicate with the public and media on curriculum and instructional issues.")

While Godfrey is "not supportive of a Tabitha re-do," she said she sees value in someone who can provide support around lower-level tasks – "basic blocking and tackling, she said – such as scheduling media interviews. Kappeler-Hurley sometimes did this, as well as tasks ranging from writing press releases to taking photographs at school events and helping to navigate Powerpoint slides at board meetings.

A more important priority, Godfrey said – and one the district has struggled with in the past – is transparency. She said she would like to see the board's emails publicly posted in a timely manner, a request other board members also made at a retreat in June.

Both Townsend and Emberling said they themselves have felt uninformed in Kappeler-Hurley's absence and hope a new hire will focus on both internal and external communications. Emberling, who sends out a regular e-newsletter summarizing board work, pointed to widespread dissatisfaction around board communication expressed by students, staff and parents in the most recent Strategic Plan survey.

"I think we have some serious communications concerns and my hope would be that someone who has been trained in communications could help us improve our systems across the district," Emberling said.

While Godfrey questioned the position's high salary – echoing past community criticisms of the job as an unnecessary expense – Baten Caswell said that the district, in the middle of Silicon Valley, must offer competitive pay in order to find a quality person. Baten Caswell sat on the interview panel for the job when the district hired Kappeler-Hurley in 2013 and said the district struggled to compete with high-tech firms in the area also looking for communications officers.

"If all you want is somebody to push papers it's one thing, but if you want them to actually put processes together, write things that go onto the website, that kind of stuff, you need somebody who's got that background and for this amount of money, we really had a hard time coming up with strong candidates," she said.

Kappeler-Hurley's starting salary in 2013 was $130,000. Last year her total compensation was $143,258 with an additional $39,076 in district-paid benefits.

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24 people like this
Posted by Local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2015 at 4:21 pm

It's hilarious that the excuse is communication being rated as poor in the survey -- that's feedback from the last communications' officer's tenure.

I remember the excuse to hire KH was to fulfill records requests and after we hired the communications person it was as abysmally bad as ever if you wanted info from the district.

As for "taking photographs at school events and helping to navigate Powerpoint slides at board meetings." -- sorry, but ever heard of parent and student volunteers? I'm sure you could get competent help to do all those things for the price of a few pizzas every year.

We would be far better off with an ombudsperson for the money, but honestly, I think the City should go into the code and add the ombudsperson in the City charter alongside the superintenent, give the community the power to make them face the truth once in awhile. ("communications" my foot) If Heidi and MBCaswell can't stay informed without everything being massaged for them to be just the way they like it, then maybe it's time for a change of guard. ("guard" in quotes, sadly)

15 people like this
Posted by Local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2015 at 4:42 pm

The piece of advice I think applies here is: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should (for the school district, replace "do" with "spend money on something").

18 people like this
Posted by parent of 3 PAUSD kids
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2015 at 6:31 pm

Communication should be a job prerequisite in any PAUSD position, especially leadership. One overpaid communications coordinator is not going to fix systemic problems, ranging from an elementary school principal's newsletters riddled with typos to the poor roll-out of "Tutorial 2.0" at Paly.

20 people like this
Posted by No on A, TOLD YOU SO
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 9, 2015 at 7:49 pm

Thanks to Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey for being voices of sanity on this subject. It is incredibly galling that McGee and the board got rid of Tabitha to get our money in Measure A, then GOTCHA are bringing the position back now that they have us. They are really laughing at us, the rubes funding their mad money BS like a PR person. What a waste. And right after they poormouthed on class sizes. Oh we can't afford to get class sizes down. No, of course not, we need an even more useless and bloated district staff haha paid for by you, the taxpayer.

Hope you're happy, thanks Measure A committee for getting us taken to the cleaners.

11 people like this
Posted by overpaid PR
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 9, 2015 at 7:51 pm

It is ridiculous to hire another overpaid PR person.
overburdened Palo Alto taxpayer

27 people like this
Posted by No on A, TOLD YOU SO
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 9, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Letter that was included in school board packet to the public in 2013 board meeting when they first hired Tabitha.

To : Dana Tom, President, Board of Education
Barb Mitchell, Camille Townsend, Mellissa Baten-Caswell, Heidi Emberling
Date: March 17. 2013

I served as Principal of Palo Alto High from 1987 to 1994 and again from 2002-2004.
Since retiring, I have chosen to remain silent on PAUSD issues. My husband and I have
lived on Stanford campus for nearly 45 years, and we have continuously supported our
schools. Our two daughters went through the public school system, and we now have
grandchildren who will benefit from Palo Alto's good schools. We have a long and
profound interest in your allocating school resources wisely.

When suddenly we experience higher than expected tax revenues, the generous parent
community(PIE) raises over $4 million for the schools, or an anonymous donor
contributes millions of dollars for facilities, it is of utmost importance to recognize the
value of community support. Establishing trust and transparency are critical aspects of
leadership within our District if we expect to parents and community members to
continue to support our schools.

Your decision to create a $150,000 communications officer has puzzled and dismayed
me. If the administrators are fulfilling their job responsibilities, they are the ones in the
best position to communicate with the public. They are inside the issues. They are hired
to represent the District. It is unnecessary to layer another person in the mix. When I was
principal in the District, we had a communications officer. That position appropriately
was one of the first to be eliminated when cuts had to be made. I believe you are making
a mistake to allocate precious resources for a communications officer. I urge you to hold
your administrators responsible for communicating effectively.

Ask any teacher how $150,000 might be used to support teaching and learning in the
classroom. I doubt you will find any who would opt for a communications officer.

Sandra Pearson
691 Mirada Ave.
Stanford, Ca. 94305

10 people like this
Posted by Skelly is laughing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 6:24 am

If we don't continue to raise the parcel tax, or hire luxury positions like people to cut out newspaper articles, it means we don't love our kids. Yes on the next Measure A!

4 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 10, 2015 at 7:47 am

In most communities the local newspaper provides reasonable coverage of school activities - not in Palo Alto. In fact, the PA teachers are advised not to bother reading the PA Online articles because of the constant distortion. The Communications position is just a response to that mostly one sided nonsense.

4 people like this
Posted by reflecting facts
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 10, 2015 at 8:41 am

Shouldn't the headline read "School board majority approve communications coordinator position"? It's what happened after all, rather than what the headline appears to imply.

11 people like this
Posted by Local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 9:50 am

It seems to me the events since Measure A was passed demonstrate the reason for the ongoing debate about whether it is appropriate for a school funding measure sometimes to be a way to send a message. (Do you hear that Weekly board? Do you agree with Alphonso, that your articles are mostly one-sided nonsense?)

I think instead, we should be looking at why there are no other enforceable checks and balances, and such weak, easily corrupted, or non-existent oversight. Apparently, the 4th estate doesn't understand much about power, either.

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 10:14 am

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 10:53 am

[Post removed due to removal of referenced comment.]

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:18 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:10 pm

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by In the Closet
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:16 pm

[Post removed.]

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