Capital Region

Getting the word out: District spending on communication services varies widely

'I cannot understate the value of proper and effective communications with our families in the district'
New Superintendent Shannon Shine after the Mohonasen Board of Education meeting on Sept. 10, 2018.
New Superintendent Shannon Shine after the Mohonasen Board of Education meeting on Sept. 10, 2018.

Dozens of school districts across the region contract with Capital Region BOCES for communication services, but how much districts invest in the service varies widely.

Capital Region BOCES offers a long menu of communication services — ranging from embedding full-time specialists in districts to offering a portfolio of explainers on common education issues and other information useful to the public — tailoring custom packages for each district. They also provide printing services, website management and help with distribution of budget newsletters.

While no district in the region spends even 1 percent of its total budget on public information and communication services, some districts appear to value the service more than others.

Broadalbin-Perth Central School District budgeted more money for communication services as a share of its budget than over two dozen other districts in the area, setting aside as much as three times more money for the services than similarly sized districts. The district budgeted $221,500 for the BOCES service this school year – out of a total budget of $36.6 million. Guilderland Central School also spent about $221,000 on the BOCES communications service — out of a $100 million budget.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Cobleskill-Richmondville, with nearly the same enrollment and a slightly larger budget than Broadalbin-Perth, spent less than $70,000 on communications, a third of what Broadalbin-Perth spent on the same service.

Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson acknowledged that the district invests more in communications than other districts in the region, while defending the expense as key to keeping its community informed and maintaining trust in the school district. He said the investment pays off when residents are asked to support the district’s annual budgets or a capital project.

“I cannot understate the value of proper and effective communications with our families in the district, not only the families that attend our schools but the taxpayers that support our schools,” Tomlinson said in an interview on Friday.

Mohonasen also ranked among districts in the region investing the most in communications staff and services. The district set aside just over $255,000 of its $53 million budget for the services this school year, down from over $285,000 the year before. The district trimmed its communication budget during a year it also cut a dozen teacher positions.

Mohansen Superintendent Shannon Shine, who started in the job this summer and is entering his first budget season as district superintendent, said it was too early to say whether the district was spending the appropriate amount on communications. But he also underscored the importance of strong communications and highlighted projects he said he wants his already busy communications staff to work on – like communications about school safety and student mental health.

“Internally and with the community, everything is a relationship,” Shine said. “How do you keep a relationship going well? Communication, timely communication.”

Not all districts rely solely on BOCES for its communication services; some districts, particularly larger ones like Schenectady, have a communications person on staff. Those districts also spend on some BOCES communication services.

From either BOCES or district staff, school district communications specialists respond to media inquiries, maintain websites, develop messages for parents and write stories about students’ accomplishments. They also take on large projects core to districts’ academic missions.

Schenectady’s communications specialist, Karen Corona, for example, spearheaded a social media campaign that started last year and has continued this year emphasizing the importance of student attendance. In Broadalbin-Perth, Tomlinson said, the communications staff has helped train staff and the school board.

Many BOCES communications specialists blend into the staffs of the districts they support, in some cases working in the same district year after year. They attend school board and community meetings that stretch late into the night, and they manage a district’s real-time communications to parents and guardians amid lockdowns and other moments of strain. They update websites — though nearly a third of the region’s districts didn’t have their operating budgets posted to their websites earlier this month, an improvement from the two-thirds of districts who didn’t have budgets posted in February.

‘Sharing of knowledge’

Adrienne Leon, director of communication and public relations at Capital Region BOCES, said the 47 district-level specialists are also supported by a 10-person central support staff, which includes graphic artists and a website developer, and eight managers. Capital Region BOCES has contracts with 57 districts and three other BOCES, Leon said.

“The expertise, the sharing of knowledge, is also really powerful,” Leon said of the program’s ability to leverage its overall staff in supporting districts. “A lot of districts see the benefit of that.”

Leon said the BOCES communications program works with individual districts to develop a communications package that best fits their needs and resources.

“Districts can contract with us for whatever level they feel they need, and with their resources what they feel they can support,” Leon said. “Every superintendent approaches these things very differently, and they have different needs. Every district has different needs, and that’s where those differences [in budgets] come in, and this is not cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all.”

At Broadalbin-Perth, a communications staff of four people — all of whom are BOCES employees and two of whom split their time with work for other school districts — works closely with Tomlinson. The staff includes a videographer and a former newspaper journalist, as well as a grant writer who also spends time working with other districts. Tomlinson said the communications staff is always close at hand and can help him with letters and other needs as they arise.

The communications staff also works in classrooms, developing positive stories about what students and teachers in the districts are doing on a regular basis. Those stories are shared through the district’s website and social media channels.

A recent video promoting the district’s “blue plate special” — an offer of a free meal for any law enforcement officers who drop by a school — drew thousands of shares within hours of being posted, Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson, who said the district has built its communications staff from nothing a decade ago, emphasized the importance of building a positive brand among the districts families and its communities’ residents — and voters.

“I always lean on the side of if we don’t have effective communications, and we start to pull out, we will have less [academic] program, because we will lose the trust of the community,” he said.

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