In this age of economic hardship and budgetary belt-tightening, it is no wonder the Manchester Board of School Committee’s recent vote to bring back the central office position of district communications coordinator — yes, a PR person — has raised eyebrows, questions, and the hackles of at least two board members, who, according to press accounts, believe money would be better spent adding to a teaching corps decimated by pink slips issued to more than 100 teachers in 2012.
As the last person to occupy the job of coordinator of school and community relations for the district — I left in 2008 to take another job, and the position was never filled — I am, not surprisingly, a strong advocate of the board’s decision. As one of those pink-slipped teachers — I taught English at Central High School from 2009 to 2012 — I am perhaps a somewhat curious proponent of sacrificing a teaching position in order to hire a central office staffer.
I favor the decision because I know the benefit to the district provided by the communications professional will be greater than that provided by only one more teacher in a woefully understaffed district. To be sure, hiring one new teacher to split an overcrowded class of 34 will directly benefit 17 students, but burnishing the district’s often undeservedly sullied reputation by highlighting its many notable strengths could benefit thousands of Manchester kids.
In a competition between a PR flack and a teacher, the PR person has, well, a public relations problem. Those asked to imagine what a public relations professional looks like might flash back to hazy memories of hundreds of “60 Minutes” episodes in which Mike Wallace’s penetrating questions were deflected (with varying degrees of success) by someone like Nathan Thurm, the perspiration-soaked, slick-haired, chain-smoking defender of the indefensible portrayed by Martin Short in various “Saturday Night Live” skits, or to Aaron Eckhart’s more polished but equally slimy tobacco industry mouthpiece in “Thank You for Smoking.”
Softer images of teachers abound in the popular culture — from Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of a demure but authoritative teacher standing before a blackboard filled with surprise birthday wishes from her students to Tina Fey’s character’s ineffective but earnest champion of the underdog in “Mean Girls.”
Unless one believes public education is the equivalent of Agent Orange or the Ford Pinto, it is unlikely the individual hired will be charged with making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, because truly great things happen in Manchester’s public schools on a daily basis. What a talented communications expert will be able to do is widely disseminate those positive stories in a manner that will attract attention, opportunity and, yes, money to the district and its students. During my tenure in the job, positive stories about underfunded but promising school programs that appeared in local media often resulted in unsolicited pledges of support for Manchester’s teachers and students.
One school board member who voted against hiring a communications expert based his opposition on the belief that Superintendent Debra Livingston should be the “face of the district.” He is absolutely correct. Dr. Livingston should allow a public relations officer to speak in her place on only rare occasions. The district does not need another face, but it could use another set of ears.
In an rapidly diversifying city, the presence of a school district representative on various committees and commissions and at various events is called for with increasing frequency. At one point when I worked for the district, I represented Manchester’s schools on more than 20 committees — ranging from a Chamber of Commerce business leadership group to a planning group that coordinated a preventative dental health program for elementary students. The superintendent cannot afford to attend all of these meetings, but the district cannot afford to leave an empty seat at any table at which decisions that would benefit Manchester’s students are made.
In an increasingly media-saturated and media-savvy world, an entity like the Manchester School District allows others to tell its story at its peril. For too long, the district has been content to let inspiring accounts of its many successes go untold, thereby missing countless opportunities to build public and corporate support for even greater success.
The Bible tells us, “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” For too long, the school district has squandered its light. Hiring someone to tell its stories and leverage their power to benefit all of the district’s 15,000 students is a wise move that will pay benefits that cannot be contained within the walls of just one classroom.
David Scannell is an English teacher at Milford High School. He served as the Manchester School District’s coordinator of school and community relations from 2004 to 2008.