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Education

School districts turn to public relations aides when trouble surfaces

Suburban school districts are increasingly turning to public relations professionals to manage crises and help them communicate with parents and residents, often at a cost of thousands of dollars to taxpayers.

After the Massachusetts School Building Authority temporarily suspended funding for the new Concord-Carlisle Regional High School last year and blasted the district over what it termed a lack of openness, the local committee overseeing the project hired a part-time communications manager with an annual salary of $40,000.

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When the glare of the spotlight turned to Lexington’s public schools, over the district’s use of a time-out room for special-needs children and an athletic director’s fabrication of facts in pushing for gender equity in the scheduling of basketball games, the superintendent called in a well-known crisis manager. The consultant has a one-year retainer with the school district for $5,000 covering an initial 20 hours of work.

Last fall, Newton school officials hired a communications and community engagement coordinator at a salary of $60,000. The Marlborough district employs a communications liaison who is paid $65,000.

“I do see this as a growing industry,” said Jocelyn Meek, who is paid $70,000 as the Brockton school district’s communications officer. When Meek was hired in 2002, she was one of the few public school communications officers in Massachusetts outside of big-city districts, such as Boston.

Nationwide, school districts commonly have public spokesmen on staff. But the practice has been rarer in Massachusetts, where school districts are smaller and superintendents, principals, and school board members typically take on the role of communicating with the community and news media.

Some parents and residents say they want more information and openness from their school districts, but not everybody is convinced that this is the way to do it.

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Concord resident Lissa ­McKinney said it was difficult last year to get information about the $92.6 million high school construction project, but she worries that the communications manager will put a positive spin on the district’s plans without increasing transparency. She also questioned the $40,000 salary and expense.

“I think it’s kind of outrageous for a part-time job, given that we’re in budget constraints,” McKinney said.

Stan Durlacher, chairman of the regional district’s building committee, said the volunteer board has been overwhelmed by requests for information about the project, and hiring a spokesman aided the process.

The state agency urged Concord-Carlisle officials to brush up on open meeting and public records laws when it restored $28.8 million in reimbursements for the high school project in October.

“We did not exactly shower ourselves with glory when it came to communication,” Durlacher said.

Tom Lucey, who began his job as the building committee’s spokesman early this month, will research and quickly respond to the public’s questions about the new high school, rework the project’s website, and reach out to the local news media, Durlacher said.

The Concord-Carlisle district will fund the position until the new high school opens, scheduled for December 2015, although Lucey’s initial contract is only for six months. Lucey will be continuing his full-time job as Harvard University’s director of community relations, Durlacher said.

Durlacher said the building committee and other local officials are not trying to dodge questions or responsibility by hiring a spokesman.

“We’re looking at it more as a service,” he said. “It took a crisis to shake the tree a bit.”

For many districts, it’s a crisis that triggers the search for a communications specialist.

Newton officials had discussed improving communications with parents and the public for several years. But after an elementary school teacher was arrested last year on child pornography charges, the issue gained even more significance, said Superintendent David Fleishman.

“That helped drive the decision for sure,” he said. Megan Smallidge joined the superintendent’s staff in the fall. Her job is still evolving, and will include work with social networks, such as Facebook, Fleishman said.

Smallidge has already been updating the district’s website, and she produced a video tour of three schools to help voters decide whether to support a request to raise taxes through a Proposition 2½ override to fund new buildings.

Other district staffers don’t necessarily have the time to do this work, Fleishman said.

Lexington officials have informally talked about hiring a full-time communications manager, but at the moment the district isn’t likely to spend the money on such a position, said Margaret Coppe, chairwoman of the School Committee.

Instead, when a crisis flares up, the school district turns to Karen Schwartzman, a longtime public relations consultant who works with several independent and public schools. For her time beyond the initial 20 hours of work covered by the retainer, Schwartzman charges $300 per hour.

Schwartzman first worked with Lexington several years ago when some parents complained about a book on same-sex families that the district used to teach tolerance. That brought national television stations, radio talk show hosts, newspaper reporters, and bloggers to Lexington.

This fall, Superintendent Paul Ash called on Schwartzman to handle the public outcry after a parent of a former Lexington elementary school student wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that his daughter was kept in a small time-out room to calm her down. Schwartzman pushed back on elements of the initial story that Lexington officials disputed, and doggedly defended the district.

She was again on hand earlier this month dealing with media calls about an athletic director who was placed on unpaid leave for one week. The athletic director had gotten her counterparts in the league to change the basketball schedule to allow for later games for the girls’ teams after she sent out an e-mail embellishing a parent’s complaints alleging gender inequality.

Lexington deals with smaller controversies internally, but when an issue is likely to get national attention, the district brings in outside help, according to Coppe, the school board’s chairwoman.

“It’s more when it starts to reach a wider audience,” she said. “When things start to appear in the press, that brings in negative light on the school system, or people who work in the school system.”

Beth Wagner, who was hired in 2011 to help Marlborough’s school district with its communications needs, said having one point-person can make the district’s message clearer and more consistent. “It’s a good person to have in the district to field and almost triage needs from the public,” she said.

But there are some situations even a spokeswoman can’t diffuse.

Then-Marlborough superintendent Anthony Pope, who hired Wagner for the position, was dogged by controversy last year and clashed with some staff, residents, and the teachers union. The backlash proved too strong, and he decided to step down effective last July.

The city’s School Committee voted Saturday to hire Saugus Superintendent Richard Langlois as the district’s new leader.

Langlois, who doesn’t have a communications representative in Saugus, said he isn’t sure how he feels about having one in Marlborough. But he added that it could help spread the word about positive news that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“It’s a luxury I haven’t had,” Langlois said. “Educators don’t market the quality of what we do very well, and I think that’s an opportunity to take advantage of that.”

Globe correspondent Calvin Hennick contributed to this report. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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