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Hillsborough Schools may hire communications firm to help explain Gates reforms

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board may soon get help explaining to the general public its $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

On Tuesday, the board plans to consider a proposal to pay the communications firm Hill & Knowlton $375,000 to help get the word out on its reform plans.

The cost would come from Gates grant funds, officials said.

"So far, the burden for explaining this has fallen to me and my staff," said communications director Stephen Hegarty. "This is a major thing to communicate, and the Gates people want to make sure we're doing it."

Under its seven-year Gates plan, the district aims to revamp the way teachers are recruited, trained and paid.

Starting next fall, a new corps of peer evaluators will rate every teacher in the district. By 2013, those ratings — along with principal evaluations and student test scores — will help determine which teachers qualify for tenure or merit pay.

That's a lot for teachers to get their heads around.

And communicating those reforms effectively — to employees and to the general public — is part of what the foundation expects the district to do, Hegarty said.

So far, his three-person communication staff has largely shouldered that burden, along with Gates project director David Steele and a larger team that includes videographers, printers and Web specialists.

But sometimes daily events in the nation's eighth-largest school system interfere with that effort.

"People would come in with a Gates crisis and I'd have to say, 'I'm sorry, I'm doing swine flu today,' " Hegarty said.

Some of those tasks will fall to former Potter Elementary School principal Tracye Hill Brown, who was appointed last month to a managerial position on the district's Gates team that includes communication.

The 18-month contract with Hill & Knowlton's Tampa office would allow the district to quickly develop printed materials or conduct meetings in support of that effort, Hegarty said.

Three other Tampa firms — HDR Engineering Inc., Shooting Stars Post Inc., and TuckerHall — also applied for the job but were not recommended by the district's bid review committee.

Hegarty said Hill & Knowlton's contract could be extended, but probably not for all seven years of the grant.

"As I envision it, a lot of the communications work is going to be on the front end," Hegarty said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough Schools may hire communications firm to help explain Gates reforms 03/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 10:50pm]
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