Choosing Spin Over Good Will

Massaging its message may not be enough

   At a time when the East Hampton School Board has been cutting back on services outside of the classroom, notably scaling back adult continuing education and trying to eliminate the continued free use of facilities for non-school sports associations, it is unfortunate that it would find the money to fund a part-time public relations position.
    In a unanimous vote last month, the board agreed to hire a former East Hampton Star reporter to prepare the district newsletter and update its Web site. For this, the district will pay up to $40,000. This is likely more than the amount the district will save by asking outside groups to pay for custodians when school gyms or fields are used. There undoubtedly also are numerous in-school programs and services that were trimmed when the board went about necessary cost-cutting last spring that could benefit from such a sum. 
    Despite contrary statements from some board members, this is not the first time the district has sought help in putting its spin on the message. For several years about a decade ago, the district paid tens of thousands of dollars a year to an UpIsland public relations firm with no discernable benefit. Later, it hired a part-time staffer to write feel-good stories about the schools with an objective of getting them published in local newspapers. That effort was largely ignored as well.
    Looking at it from another side, however, the criticism heard from time to time that the news outlets ignore the good things going on in classrooms in favor of dry budget stories and varsity sports coverage is valid. With limited staff, local media outlets like The Star make decisions about what to cover and when, and we could all do a better job. But the answer is not hiring a P.R. person to spoon-feed us and the others stories. School administrators and department heads should keep in mind that newsrooms are always hungry for new ideas; story pitches are only a phone call or e-mail away.
    In a side note, the new P.R. hire came at the same time as Springs School parents were scrambling to come up with money to pay East Hampton to allow their middle school-age students to participate in extracurricular sports such as football and soccer. One wonders if the board could have instead reduced or pro-rated the Springs fee. Though the tendency among East Hampton School Board members is to think only of their own taxpayers, this is a close-knit group of hamlets and villages, with family ties frequently extending across district lines. Moreover, many of today’s Springs kids are going to be East Hampton High School’s standouts in years to come, both academically and in competitive sports. Doing right by them early on is a wise investment.
    It is shortsighted of the district to create ill will by its tight-fistedness among some of the same community members who it will turn to in May to approve its next budget. Massaging its message may not be enough if a close election looms.