Last August, Kern High School District trustees narrowly shot down a contract for $380,000 to hire a local public relations company.
I say narrowly because it was quite a battle on the board with former Trustee Chad Vegas famously stating that “Our PR sucks!” after a year of bad press over massive lawsuit losses and a burgeoning district police department scandal.
Anyhow, fast forward to today and the district has quietly added three new PR jobs to the one it already had.
Total cost for all four positions is about $310,000 a year.
And that’s just salaries.
Add in the bennies and taxpayers will actually be shelling out more than the $380,000 some trustees proposed spending last year.
I said last year, and I’ll say again, KHSD’s problem isn’t one of “messaging.”
It’s a lack of leadership, focus and accountability.
This latest lawsuit settlement is a perfect example, but we’ll get back to that.
Let's examine these PR jobs first.
In late spring of this year, the district advertised for “Supervising Administrator of School and Community Relations” for $120,000 a year.
The position already existed as a school community liaison. That person retired and the position was “restructured.”
Either way, the new PR position, apparently, oversees the existing communications department, which already has a PR person — Lisa Krch, who makes $98,000.
Despite Krch’s efforts, the already administrator-heavy district felt it needed yet another administrator.
Part of the new administrator’s duties were listed as developing and implementing a “comprehensive communications plan,” according to the job description.
That’s no easy task.
The new administrator would also coordinate answers to requests under the California Public Records Act.
Also complicated and requires a great deal of knowledge.
On July 1, KHSD promoted Megan Gregor into the new position.
Gregor started with the district in 2006 as an English teacher, then moved up the ranks, landing as assistant principal of administration at West High in 2014.
She may be a fine English teacher (and probably hates my often grammatically “creative” columns) but where exactly is her public relations expertise? Or her experience with the Public Records Act?
Seems to me like KHSD felt besieged by (very deserved) bad press and reflexively popped out a new administrator to “fix it.”
But wait, don’t answer yet.
The district is also advertising for two lower-level PR positions (each paying about $46,000 a year) mostly to handle photo/video/social media. Neither requires more than a high school diploma.
One of those positions would report to Gregor, the other would report to Support Services (activities and athletics).
That’s a lot of PR muscle, and a lot of taxpayer scratch, to “support a positive district image,” as Krch told The Californian in May about the new admin position.
It occurred to me in reporting this story that in all my years, I don’t recall going through a flack (the semi-unkind word journalists use to refer to PR people) to get information about the County of Kern.
Kern County government is huge and encompasses everything from waste management to a major hospital.
But when reporters need info, we go directly to the department heads, no middle man required.
KHSD is dwarfed by Kern County, so what’s it need all these flacks for?
I actually think it would be good for KHSD to get more stories about the great teachers and programs it has out to the public.
But my fear is the district is trying to create a wall with all these flacks to deflect legitimate questions and criticisms about how it operates.
Such as, the issue behind its latest lawsuit settlement for $675,000 in which the district was forced to acknowledge that it has disproportionately expelled and suspended black and Latino students.
Not by a little.
The numbers were stunning.
KHSD expelled 2,200 students in 2009, the highest of any district in the state, including those with more students, according to The Californian’s story. (That has since dropped to fewer than 70 expulsions in 2015.)
But at its height, KHSD was averaging 55 expulsions per 1,000 students. The national average was 1.5 expulsions per 1,000 students.
And, according to the lawsuit, Latino students were booted out of KHSD at a rate 350 percent higher than whites; black student expulsion rates were 600 percent more than those for whites.
The district’s response to the lawsuit was that it didn’t violate anyone’s civil rights and the suit was premature because the district had already started training staff that there are better ways to handle student behavior than hitting the auto-eject button.
Discriminatory expulsion practices, along with all of KHSD’s other foibles, are extremely serious issues.
As a taxpayer and someone who cares about education, I’d rather see the district deal with the facts no matter how harsh and fix problems, instead of having my money pay a bunch of people to “to support a positive district image.”