Expanded school communications come with a cost

District says programs enhance internal, external connections

The Douglas County School District decision to extend school vouchers to some students is facing challenges from four national and local organizations. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen | ckuhlen@ccnewspapers.com
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Non-salary expenses for the Douglas County School District’s communications services more than quadrupled from the 2009-10 academic year to 2012-13, and the district’s total communications staff salaries are more than 76 percent higher than neighboring Cherry Creek School District’s.

DCSD’s communications department non-salary expenses, which added up to just over $21,000 for the 2009-10 academic year, increased to more than $96,000 in 2012-13.

Since July 1, DCSD’s communications department already has spent about $54,000 on non-salary expenses — more than half the amount it did in the entire previous year. Of the amount expended since July 1, $20,300 was paid to a marketing company — an amount almost equal to the department’s entire 2009-10 non-salary expenses. 

The marketing company, Strategic Advantage, helped with content-writing and story production for the district’s electronic and printed newsletters, according to DCSD public information officer Michelle Yi, one of six full-time employees in the communications department.

District leaders say communication efforts throughout the community and within the district are greatly enhanced, with internal information serving as a resource for teachers and staff members. New features include a weekly radio show, telephone town halls, a DCSD app, video programs on cable television and YouTube, enhanced internal and crisis communications, and a recently redesigned website and electronic parent newsletter.

“Our key criteria is to make sure we’ve got avenues of communication for each of our stakeholder groups — parents, employees, students and our community,” DCSD internal communications officer Randy Barber told the school board during its August meeting. “As we’re reinventing American education in this district, information is a key to that process.”

The department recently hired Yi as its new district public information officer — the third in as many years. Yi, who joined DCSD in June, has a career background in Republican politics. Most recently, she was communications director during Joe Coors’ unsuccessful 2012 run for Congress.

Former spokespersons have shifted roles, but have not left DCSD.

With the addition of Yi to the communications staff, DCSD is paying about $430,000 in salaries to its six-person department.

By contrast, neighboring Cherry Creek School District employs four communications department staff members with salaries totaling about $244,000. Cherry Creek is the state’s fourth-largest school district with about 53,000 students; Douglas County is third with about 67,000 students.

Community relations officer Cinamon Watson, also with a background in Republican campaigns, is the highest paid among the DCSD communications staff at $123,500.

Barber, formerly DCSD’s spokesman, shifted within the department to internal communications and a post vacated by a previous employee, district officials said. Watson, who stepped into Barber’s role in 2012, leads the department, with most public interaction turned over to Yi earlier this year.

Watson also is interim executive director of the Douglas County Educational Foundation, the district’s fundraising arm.

Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said DCSD is widely admired for its communications efforts.

“They’ve done amazing with the amount of time and resources they’ve had,” she told the board in August. “We’ve had many visitors come and look at our communications relations department and say it’s the most comprehensive, innovative community relations department they’ve seen anywhere.”

According to an email sent by Yi, “In 2011, the Community Relations Department reorganized and developed a comprehensive plan to meet a mission of communicating, educating, and informing our four stakeholder groups: students, parents, employees, and the community.  The communications plan is a two-pronged effort to reach both internal and external audiences.”