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Hiding from the truth // THE MEMO

The following memorandum was written Jan. 25 by Marilyn Brown, Pinellas schools public information officer. It was directed to Superintendent Howard Hinesley and School Board members, but Hinesley never distributed it to board members. He told a reporter he buried the memo because it was "critical." On April 30, he also eliminated Brown's job.

The operations team and I have been given a directive from Bob Paskel to "find ways to get word out on how well our students are doing to fairly represent the vast majority of our students." Having been at the two recent board meetings when this was discussed, I am aware of the board's concern about negative publicity. It is the same concern I have heard from principals and administrators, and I can assure you, it is shared by school boards across the country.

It has been repeatedly suggested that the way to combat negative publicity is to "get the word out about all the good things in schools" and about how many of our students are successful. Although ongoing efforts stressing our strengths are crucial for community support as well as vital to employees and students, that is not an appropriate response to negative publicity. No amount of positive publicity or flashy marketing campaigns will replace treating parents, students, teachers and the public courteously and responding to their needs on a daily basis. No publicity blitz will cover up a lack of academic learning or discipline. There is no greater insult than to make excuses, not acknowledge or attempt to cover up a problem. The public will not _ nor should it _ tolerate this. If a problem or concern surfaces, the human tendency is to be defensive or to attack the person who carries the bad news. This does not address the problem and only makes the public distrustful and angry.

We use positive statistics heavily in our publicity. A barrage of positive numbers is probably the worst response to a specific or chronic problem, however. If children are not picked up by a school bus, for example, the worse thing you can tell the parents is that "99 percent of our children are picked up every day." They don't care. They want their child picked up. If there is a shooting at a bus stop, the total number historically has little immediate value. Parents and the public rightfully want to know that: 1) we acknowledge the problem or situation, and 2) what we are going to do about it.

The recent publicity of poorly written letters from Carwise Middle School is a good example of misplaced criticism. The problem is not that the press exposed it or that the letters left the school. The concern should be, "Why was the grammar, spelling and punctuation so poor?" We can make excuses, but we have to face the truth that language arts skills can be greatly improved in our schools. I sincerely believe that this is a real problem, not just in our district, but in most. From what I have seen in my five years as public information officer, our students, administrators and teachers need to significantly improve their basic English skills. Teachers and administrators can confirm that we do not place the emphasis on these skills today that we have in the past. I have discussed this concern numerous times with Dr. Hinesley as well as with Darian Walker, supervisor, secondary language arts. This problem so distressed me that I enlisted Mrs. Walker to develop a workshop on basic grammatical errors that we commonly see in the school system. I distributed information to all administrators, stressing the critical need for all of us to use proper grammar, spelling and punctuation.

There is no lack of documentation of the weakness of these skills. You are welcome to review our Teacher of the Year applications in my office. Many are so poor that our committee eliminated using paper-screening judges from the business community. We also added grammar, punctuation and spelling as criteria for judging.

There is certainly no lack of positive publicity about our students and our schools. Besides the weekly full-page "good news" provided free in the St. Petersburg Times, both papers have daily stories and photographs about exciting, innovative programs going on in our classrooms and about individuals who excel. The positive stories far exceed the space given negative coverage. . . . Taxpayers do not want us to spend their money to promote ourselves. Our Community Communications Committee has suggested a speaker's bureau that is scheduled to be discussed at our Jan. 30 meeting. Even more ways to deliver the message will follow. It is not a matter of quantity, however. It is not even the reality that bad things happen in our schools. These things will continue to happen. Twenty good stories can be immediately overshadowed by just one that questions our ability to educate children or whether they are safe. The negative impact occurs when we fail to acknowledge and address the concern. The public can accept our challenges and understand our mistakes. What it will not accept is failure to acknowledge and remedy them. The School Board's sincere desire to identify and deal head-on with problems is evident. It is imperative that the public understand that concern.

Today's news organizations are examining their own emphasis on the sensational and the negative. We must realize, however, that we cannot control the media. What we can control is: 1) putting ourselves in a position to be criticized, and 2) how we respond.

Our television channel is a unique and valuable opportunity to showcase our teachers in action and, as board members have suggested, tutor students in algebra or other basic subjects. The workshop on health education should prove invaluable in helping the public understand that particular program . . . . Substance, not fluff, is what gives us credibility.

Another public relations nightmare waiting to happen is the recent employee survey. Before it was distributed, I questioned its public impact. It might be useful internally to measure employee morale . . . . However, when the results are reported, it will likely be obvious that the majority of our employees want more money, feel unappreciated and may not even like each other. As I shared with both Dr. Hinesley and Steve Iachini, the public doesn't care if we want more money, are happy or like each other. Many people don't even have jobs, much less the benefits we receive. If we are not happy, the only connection the public can make is that our discontent may negatively affect children's learning. We also will be criticized for spending time and money to find out how we feel instead of teaching students.

There are only two issues in public education that concern parents and drive public perception. Those issues are curriculum and safety. When we fail to address them, we are in peril. If we have the self-confidence, courage and will to honestly face these challenges, positive public perception will follow.