Sunday, July 15, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school district loses another communications chief

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is again without someone to run its communications department, which some consider the weakest link in the large organization.

School Board members have consistently given superintendent Jeff Eakins his lowest ratings in communications as the district weathers massive financial hurdles coupled with increased competition from privately managed charter schools.

Teresa Lantigua Peterson, who took over in April as communications and media officer, resigned this week for a job as executive director of communications for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, effective July 13. Her successor will be the district's fifth communications director in two years.

RELATED STORY:

Communication still a weak spot for Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins

"The truth is, I feel like this is a calling to do this particular job with the diocese," Peterson said in an interview, denying social media rumors that she had been forced out.

The same could not be said for T.G. Taylor, who was fired as the district's community relations chief in November after less than six months on the job.

In-between, government relations officer Jason Pepe has run the department on an interim basis. He succeeded Stephen Hegarty, who moved to the Tampa Police Department shortly after Eakins became superintendent in 2015.

With all the upheaval, the district has lacked a coherent communications strategy and at times employed Tucker/Hall, a corporate public relations and crisis management firm.

Despite those services, there have been missteps.

The district spent more than six months figuring out a new arrival and dismissal schedule to make better use of its school bus fleet, but did not inform the public until late in the school year. Backlash from parents was so great that officials put the cost-saving plan on hold until 2018.

There also have been attempts by the district to create its own media products to counter reports in the mainstream media and on Whistleblower, a critical blog that appears on Facebook.

On Thursday, at the year's first bargaining session with the teachers' union, the district sent one of its communications employees to sit through the meeting and write her own news report.

Peterson, who worked for the Diocese of Orlando before she joined the district, spent much of her time implementing a communications plan prepared by Tucker/Hall.

The plan included a reorganization that required nearly all the employees to re-apply for their jobs. Four were assigned to area offices, where they will be closer to the schools and better able to find material for media reports, both mainstream and district-produced.

And on Tuesday, Eakins unveiled a new page on the district website, devoted to budgetary problems and solutions.

It was not clear on Friday who will run the department while Eakins finds a replacement for Peterson, or how this latest shake-up will affect the new plans.

"It is problematic for the district as a whole," said School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart.

"But we can't look back, we can just move forward."

The saving grace, she said, is that many candidates were interviewed for jobs during the reorganization. "Hopefully Jeff will be able to potentially find another candidate in that pool that they maybe overlooked," she said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

   
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