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  • School Committee Can’t Spin Bad Optics of Hiring PR Firm

    [CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Phil Thornton answers questions from the Warwick City Council March 20.

    [CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Phil Thornton answers questions from the Warwick City Council March 20.

    Warwick, RI — When the going gets tough, the tough… hire a PR firm?

    That seems to be the modern twist to the old saying, as the Warwick School Department has contracted Martin & Associates of Upton, MA, to two contracts totaling some $125,000 going back to November, 2015.warwick-post-commentary

    Supt. Philip Thornton’s decision, carried out with the blessing of the school committee, has legitimately come under fire from teachers union president Darlene Netcoh and Norwood PTA president-elect Stephanie Shelton, who both targeted the contracts as an example of wasteful spending.

    The issue came up again at the school committee’s Aug. 14 meeting, where an attempt by member Karen Bachus to zero-out the PR budget failed in favor of $115,000 in cuts to other accounts to fund 1.5 guidance counselor positions for the entire district.

    Indeed, following the meeting, several commenters to the Post’s Facebook page took issue to continuing the spending on a public relations firm over providing basic educational support for students.

    A review of the contract and invoices paid to Martin & Associates appears to lend support to that argument; start with the $50,000 budget for new school district websites.

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    According to records obtained by WarwickPost.com, the website contract includes the completion of 21 sites: two each for the high schools and junior high schools, 16 for the elementary schools and one for the district. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether every school actually needs its own website [as opposed to a tab for each school on the district site], there’s a valid argument to be made against spending that sum for their construction.

    Beyond that, there’s the list of other work that Martin & Associates have been doing for the district, particularly the crafting of public statements and posting of social media content on Thornton’s behalf.

    Here’s just one example: On Dec. 22, 2016, Martin & Associates charged the district $140 [two hours at $70 per hour] to reply to requests for comment from the Post and the Warwick Beacon following the student walk-out protesting the department’s special education policies.

    Instead of speaking directly to the press, Thornton issued a statement and released it on Twitter, saying that “a small number of people” were protesting “long overdue initiatives” and minimizing the outcry as the work of a vocal minority.

    The question remains, then: Why did Thornton need a PR firm at all? Certainly, he could formulate his own response [however unfortunate], couldn’t he?

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    Even more troubling is the decision by a majority of the school committee to fund the PR firm’s work.

    Warwick schools already have an IT department; Toll Gate hosts a career and tech center with a robust graphic design and computer production program — why couldn’t updated websites be a class project for students who are learning these marketable skills, and overseen by current IT staff?

    It’s a sad message to be sending these students that their school district does not consider them creative or competent enough to do this work. Hiring an out-of-state firm for website work when local talent would have sufficed also invites unwelcome comparisons to the state’s botched roll-out of its tourism campaign in 2015 that was managed by a New York-based firm.

    As one attendee said at the recent school committee meeting, “the best PR is to do things the right way.”

    In this case, Thornton’s attempt to “fix” the school department’s PR woes is only serving to make them worse, and the school committee owes parents, teachers, and students an answer for why they see spin control and media manipulation to be more important than academic support.

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