board members

Why Hiring a PR Consultant is a Dud of an Idea for Montclair’s School Board


Hiring a PR consultant might be well-intentioned.  But it shows Montclair’s eduction reform board members don’t understand strained community relations.  They need to focus on strengthening their parent and teacher partnerships by figuring out where they create discord, then changing their ways.


Sometimes I am a bit slow when learning the latest happenings.  I just discovered Montclair, NJ’s board of education plans to hire, or has hired, a PR consultant.

I’m giving board members benefit of the doubt that one of their PR goals is to improve community relations.  If so, I tip my hat to their acknowledgement that existing discord needs to improve.  I hate to think it isn’t a goal.  Otherwise it would mean their focus is outside the community, not in it.  Either way, hiring a PR consultant may be well-intentioned but shows a lack of understanding of why there is discord to begin with.

I’m probably stating the obvious: “Public Relations” is a misnomer because it is about improving image, not relationships.  With PR, someone doesn’t actually have to nurture a relationship with the people whose opinions he wants to change.  He doesn’t even have to talk to them or show his face.  He could be a complete jerk, and if the PR is excellent, most people will end up thinking he is the hottest hot-thing in all of hot town.  But he’s still a jerk.

And as any marketer will say, the people being marketed to are called the target population.  If our board’s new PR focuses on the community, board members will be targeting us, not relating.

I don’t think this makes our board members insidious.  They are Broadies, and in keeping with the Broad Foundation approach to ed reform, they see us as customers.  It is perfectly reasonable to market to customers.  The problem is that we are partners, not customers.  Until board members understand this, their relationship with us will continue to be dysfunctional.

Again, I’m probably stating the obvious:  Relationships are interactive, mutual, give-and-take, based on humility.  Otherwise they’re dead in the water.  We all know that guy who has all the answers; blames his problems on others; gets angry when challenged; attacks whomever does the challenging; and never seems to listen to a thing he’s told….

Montclair school board members, please!  Don’t be that guy!

Partnerships don’t improve by promoting a nifty image.  They improve by taking a good look at how you contribute to the discord, then changing yourself. 

I learned about the school board’s PR consultant while reading a report of Montclair’s June 2014 school board meeting.  Parents and teachers at the meeting expressed tremendous concern and frustration over the lack of resources and support offered at Edgemont School, and the degree to which the students are suffering from it.

I have to say, it was brave of the teachers to express their concerns.  They have their own strained relations with board members.  Despite being invited to share, teachers at previous board meetings were often chastised and blamed every time they put forth a bit of “what doesn’t work” honesty.

So there the board members sat, with the concerns of Edgemont teachers and parents respectfully laid on the table.  It was a perfect opportunity for them to partake in a bit of collaborative discussion and thoughtful probing.  Yet, by all accounts, they seemed more interested in addressing the issue of hiring the PR consultant — more interested in improving their image than strengthening their relationships with the people who cared enough to attend the meeting.

I won’t get into the question of how much the PR consultant will cost us, and how that money could alleviate the problems parents and teachers raised that night.  I was more struck by something shared at the meeting because it points to a potentially serious problem.

Apparently a lack of staff is keeping classified children in our schools from getting the help required by law.  Apart from the ethics involved, neglecting classified students like this:

  • Is a big contributor to non-proficiency, illiteracy and higher dropout rates — the problems we are trying so hard to tackle.
  • Leaves our district open to legal action from parents.
  • Shows poor budgeting, since it can easily result in having to place students in specialized schools down the road.  A highly trained CST paraprofessional hired by us can work with dozens of students for the cost of sending one student out-of-district.

Did any Montclair board members also pick up on this and decide to do something about it immediately?

This situation shows why it is so important for all school boards to work in partnership with parents and teachers.  When Broadies like ours refuse to do so, they isolate themselves.  All they end up knowing are their own interests.  All they hear are messages passed down by the Broad Foundation — an organization that proudly isolates itself and lies low as a strategy.

Consequently, school board members’ interests and Broad Foundation objectives become the focus.  The daily concerns of parents and teachers are not understood.

They are creating a “let them eat cake” situation.

The kind of problems I described above are endemic, especially in inner city districts, and the Broad Foundation’s educational mission is to tackle them.

But the Broadie solutions and approach are so off the mark, the problems have increased in many districts led by them.

So, here are alternative solutions for Montclair’s board members to consider:  Focus more on how you work with people, not how you appear to them.  Take the money set aside for the PR consultant and use it to alleviate some of the problems at Edgemont School.  Then, support (not oversee) community education forums, where questions, expert presentations and debate from all sides can take place.  Attend the forums as equal participants.  Air the forums over public access television.  Listen to what is shared and adjust yourselves accordingly.

— penelope bly