Monday, December 18, 2017
Education

Pinellas school district leaders defend spending on communications

Long criticized for doing a poor job of communicating with employees, parents and the media, Pinellas County school district leaders earlier this year reorganized the office tasked with getting the word out.

The newly titled Office of Strategic Communications sought to eliminate a culture where, according to an outside audit, people worked "in isolation," and in a "guarded" environment in which little information was shared and confusion and competition reigned.

The result is an 18-person office where seven of eight people retained in the new structure received new titles and pay increases ranging from 5 to 18 percent. The office is roughly the same size as the communications staff in Hillsborough County, which enrolls nearly twice as many students as 103,000-student Pinellas. It has six more staffers than the communications department for 94,000-student Polk County.

The total salary cost for the Pinellas office is about $887,000 — about $10,000 less than before the reorganization eliminated two positions. But the average salary in the department is higher — $49,271, compared with $44,830.

The last time the state calculated the average teacher salary in Pinellas, it came in at $45,837. That was in 2010, and teachers' pay hasn't changed since.

Pinellas has long been criticized for spending too much on administration, relative to classroom needs.

But superintendent John Stewart defended the department and its reorganization as an important investment in letting the community, the media and employees understand everything the district is doing to help students learn.

"I think we're improving,'' said Stewart, who honed in on the district's communications efforts even before the Florida Association of District School Superintendents in February identified the issue as a major challenge for Pinellas.

Shortly after Stewart took the reins from ousted superintendent Julie Janssen, then-communications director Andrea Zahn announced her resignation. Stewart then combined what was an eight-person communications office with the district's 12-person television station staff, eliminated two positions and came up with 18 new job descriptions.

Donna Winchester, a former Tampa Bay Times education reporter who heads the office, said the pay increases reflect increased responsibilities. Winchester's salary went from $68,301 to $73,765.

Pinellas teachers last saw a meaningful salary increase in 2007-08, when the average pay increase was 4.8 percent. The district in 2010-11 bumped pay up by an average of 1.5 percent, but other cuts have meant net declines.

"We're doing our gosh level best to provide an increase to (teachers) this year," Stewart said when asked how he would explain the communications department pay increases to teachers. "When you give a small number of employees a raise, it's different than giving thousands of employees a raise."

Stewart noted that a benefit of reclassifying the communications positions into higher-paying jobs was that some of the employees no longer are eligible for overtime pay. In the most recent fiscal year, he said, the district paid $24,507 in overtime to the television staff.

But Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, is not convinced.

"I have not heard of anyone in our community experiencing those types of increases in this recession," Black said. "I do believe communication is important — it's critical. However, I think the message of fiscal responsibility has to be across the board."

Meanwhile, School Board members report noticeable changes in the way information is sent and received. Board Chairwoman Robin Wikle said there are "no more surprises."

"Whether good or bad news," she said, "we've known about it ahead of time."

Terry Krassner said she relied on the help of the communications department when she was crafting questions to ask of superintendent candidates during interviews this week.

"I actually feel like it's becoming a world-class communications department," Krassner said. "I feel like we're in the best hands we can possibly be in. They're very responsive."

In addition to Winchester, who was hired by Janssen, the district has hired four other former Times staffers, most of them working on internal communications. For instance, Winchester said, they craft clear information for district employees about insurance benefits, FCAT scores and school grades.

Eight positions that in the past were dedicated to the district's WPDS TV-14 now are multimedia jobs focused on collecting and producing video for the district's website and in schools. The department also will train students and teachers in the use of multimedia, Winchester said.

"It's all about trying to find opportunities to keep kids involved," Winchester said.

Soon, three television employees will leave the Office of Strategic Communications for the Teaching and Learning Department, Stewart said.

Stewart and Winchester said the TV effort should foster student success — by, for instance, featuring educational shows — rather than repeatedly airing video of events such as choral concerts.

"The district strategic plan talks about everything we do being around student achievement," Stewart said. "I can't say that it (the television programming) truly was."

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