LAUSD hires consultants to fix image
Hammered by a barrage of negative publicity in recent months, Los Angeles Unified School District officials have quietly hired two consultants to help improve their public image. The school district also hired the public relations firm Rogers Group to focus exclusively on dealing with fallout from an electronic payroll system that has left thousands of employees underpaid or overpaid since February. The recent hirings come in addition to a six-person communications staff with a nearly $1.4 million budget, an overall $10 million communications budget, and a separate consulting contract with Darry Sragow, who helps LAUSD develop communications strategies and policy issues. But LAUSD officials on Tuesday defended the public relations moves, saying that even with the additions, their communications budget pales in comparison to those of other large school districts. Abalos said it’s too early to say how he might restructure the district’s communications department or whether more people would be hired. Currently, LAUSD’s $10 million communications budget includes about $4 million for its public access channel, $3.5 million for a translation unit and $1.4 million for the office of communications. LAUSD also has hired consultant Michael Bustamante under a six-month, $90,000 contract to deal with communications strictly related to the district’s electronic payroll system. Officials did not give the amount of the Rogers Group contract. LASUD officials said the payroll debacle revealed communication problems – particularly internally – that left teachers frustrated and unable to get answers to questions and updates on progress in fixing problems. Since Bustamante started Sept. 4, the political consultant who helped oversee the communications office of former Gov. Gray Davis has spearheaded an aggressive push to reach out to teachers and keep them apprised of the payroll situation through the district Web site, television station, e-mail blasts, newsletters and direct letters to staff, Brewer said. “Over these last several months, we’ve been far more proactive in getting information out to teachers, employees and the public about the status of the payroll,” Bustamante said. Meanwhile, the district has been contracting for years with consultant Darry Sragow for $5,000 a month. Glenn Gritzner, former senior staff member at LAUSD who now works for Sragow, said the government affairs contract includes communications strategy and advising the district on issues including payroll problems, the union and facilities. But critics say LAUSD should be focusing on improving its service so it won’t have to worry about its image. “The district needs to understand, if you want to fix your image, then do things right,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy. “Don’t spend $10 million for spin doctors to weave their webs that try to show the world that they’re really good guys. Actually do it right.” Board member Tamar Galatzan said board approval of contracts is only needed if they exceed $250,000. But she said “lack of communication – both internal and external – has been a great source of frustration.” Still, she questioned whether the consultants will be able to present a unified front. “We have so many messengers that I’m worried that we are not going to have a single message,” Galatzan said. “If the job description for all of the new communication folks is just to find happy stories and convince the newspapers to print them, then I question if that’s a good use of funds.” The superintendent began searching for a director of external affairs this spring and interviewed several candidates, including Abalos. Because Abalos does not have a college degree, he was ineligible to be hired as a district employee. A few months later, Brewer brought him in as a consultant on the condition he completes his degree. He’s currently enrolled at the University of Phoenix. Pair hired to fix image Critics question choices Uniquely qualified Abalos said his experience makes him uniquely qualified for the job. Over 34 years, he’s worked in newspapers and has served as news director, executive producer and field producer for television news. About a year ago, Abalos left his job as director of public affairs for the nonprofit First 5 L.A., the child-advocacy organization created by California voters to invest tobacco tax revenues in programs for children. “I’m here to put into a framework what the vision is for the superintendent and the board so that all three are working in unison so our effort is coordinated in terms of all of our outreach with the emphasis being on the civic engagement piece because we are eager to connect with parents and the community,” Abalos said. “In a district this size, that’s a huge undertaking to want to try to be able to make sure that every part of the district knows what everybody else is doing.” For the latest school news, go to www.insidesocal.com/education. [email protected] 818-713-3722160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “We don’t do as good a job of communicating with all the audiences we need to talk to – our teachers, students, parents, and the general public,” Superintendent David Brewer III said. “That kind of communications `overhaul’ requires … full-time attention given our size and the scope of our plans.” One of the district’s recent hires is Victor Abalos, a communications consultant for Superintendent David Brewer III who has been signed to a one-year, $178,000 contract to develop communication strategies including restructuring LAUSD’s communications department. He said his position is necessary because the daily newspapers in Los Angeles “love to focus on all the negative going on in the district.” “There are several other organizations, foundations and companies that have to rely on people who know and understand communications because the two largest daily newspapers in this town would rather focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s working,” Abalos said.