On Wednesday night the Board of Education unanimously approved the hiring of a new communications director to assist the superintendent and administration team in developing a broad communications strategy starting next year. The decision to add the position was based on a specific recommendation that arose from the March Pandemic Survey results, but addresses a need trustees have long identified.
PUSD has typically relied on outside consultants or internal support for communications work, a practice that consultant Naomi Hunter noted in April is typical for small school districts like Piedmont’s. Recent crises, including the school closures related to the pandemic and missteps around anti-racism work, have renewed focus on how the school district communicates with all stakeholders in the school community.
The new full-time position would report to the superintendent. The job would entail developing a broad strategic communications plan for PUSD, redeveloping websites, maintaining the Piedmont Ahead newsletter, and more. The district is developing the job description now and hopes to start interviewing candidates in June, Superintendent Randy Booker said.
Critics say new hire alone won’t fix broken trust
While applauding the decision to move forward with the position, critics of the district’s handling of the school reopening process said hiring a communications specialist would not address the broken trust between the parent community and the schools if the person did not have the independence and authority to do more than just “cheerlead” for the district.
Jessica Berg noted that one of the problems of the past year revolved around PUSD “saying things that didn’t happen” which drove the mistrust. “Make sure you are hiring someone who can be a real leader to rebuild trust,” she said.
“Strategic messaging and tactics can only go so far if there are no real changes in how the district and board or the bargaining groups operate,” said Linda Wendel. She asked that the communications director report to the board vs. the superintendent to assure independence.
Smegal said the board had received several questions related to the reporting structure. She said she had consulted with Naomi Hunter, the consultant who administered the survey and who has assisted PUSD with communications issues this spring. Hunter told Smegal that in her experience a communications director always reported to the superintendent.
Trustee Veronica Andersen Thigpen noted that “reporting to five different people just isn’t a good structure for something like this. Working with what is typically done makes the most sense.”
Laura Maestrelli echoed earlier speakers and asked that the board adopt Hunter’s recommendation for an application process for a superintendent advisory council, making it a priority so parents could get involved over the summer.
Trustee Megan Pillsbury said she expected it to be a thoughtfully selected, small group in order to be most effective. Smegal emphasized the “advisory” nature of the group.
Trustee Hilary Cooper said she was looking forward to more engagement with the community through board member coffees. “This will be a great way for people to interact with us on a deeper level.”
“We are not thinking that just doing these recommendations will be the silver bullet that will solve all the issues,” said Smegal. “We do have to make a commitment to following through.”
The board acknowledged the need for a community-building effort or other healing forum after what has been a tumultuous year, but differed on when that should take place. Whether it happens before the end of the year or at the beginning of next remained undecided.