Photo Credit: Southside-Ashpole Elementary, Robeson County Schools.
By Lindsay Wagner
This fall, the state’s controversial new Innovative School District (ISD) will oversee the operations of just one 275-student elementary school in Robeson County. A review of taxpayer dollars spent getting the ISD up and running over in its first year of operation reflects efforts to overcome the negative public perception that’s played out ever since lawmakers enacted the reform model back in 2016.
Of the approximate $500,000 that will be spent in the first year, according to ISD staff, nearly $90,000 will be devoted to public relations services that include “reputation and issues management and crisis response counsel.” Those funds will also pay for the construction of a new website for the district, along with microsites for schools that the ISD takes over, according to records provided by the Innovative School District.
“This is something that’s brand new to the state,” said the ISD’s superintendent, Eric Hall. “The ISD involved a team of one initially, and I wanted expertise on how to establish a brand.”
The Innovative School District—a school turnaround model born out of similar reform efforts that experienced mixed records in Tennessee, Michigan, Louisiana and a few other states—is getting off to a slow start due at least in part to a contentious and very public struggle to select low-performing schools that were willing to undergo such a controversial experiment.
Several schools identified last fall for possible takeover by the state pushed back against the idea, pointing out both the model’s poor outcomes in states like Tennessee as well as concerns over the loss of local control when a school hands the reins over to a charter school operator that could fail to appreciate local needs and relationships. It’s a primary reason behind why only one school has been selected to date to be included in the ISD, well short of lawmakers’ initial goal to have five included in North Carolina’s latest effort to turn around low-performing schools.
As controversy around the ISD swirled, Superintendent Eric Hall justified the need to contract the services of a public relations firm in a memorandum to State Superintendent Mark Johnson last year.
“It will be important to engage a firm that has experience in supporting and consulting organizations who are implementing innovative practices that risk being viewed as controversial in the absence of a strong communications road map,” said Hall. “The firm identified [APCO] will counsel the ASD [now known as the ISD] Superintendent on targeting messaging to the public and media partners.”
In an interview with the Public School Forum, Hall explained that the Innovative School District is essentially an effort to build a brand new local school district aimed at turning around low-performing schools—and, he said, lawmakers understood that there’s a start-up cost to that kind of work when they developed an initial budget for the turnaround model.
“My background is school operations and leading organizations—but in year one I needed a thought partner to go from something in legislation into something that’s a viable partner with the state of North Carolina.”
Public relations firm APCO Worldwide, which has offices spanning the globe, is on track to receive approximately $88,400 in the ISD’s first year of operation.
Hall said that he contracted with the firm—after reviewing bids from multiple vendors—to develop a branding rollout plan and strategic communications roadmap, to develop an ongoing public relations strategy, and to develop a new website that will serve the needs of the ISD and its first school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary, along with future schools that are selected for state takeover.
Initially, APCO Worldwide received $4,400 last year to develop the branding and communications strategy that Hall used in his presentations to the State Board of Education and in his communications with local school districts across the state. That work came at a time when, Hall said, there was considerable staff transition at the Department of Public Instruction in the wake of State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s election.
Subsequently, APCO was contracted for $60,000 for the remainder of the year to continue providing public relations services.
“Equate that to an individual person with salary and benefits,” said Hall. “We needed to consider how to get support for helping us with communications.”
The Innovative School District does employ an individual located at the Department of Public Instruction who is devoted to communications and works alongside Hall. David Prickett, a former spokesperson employed by Governor Pat McCrory’s administration, is a contract employee for the ISD who was brought on last fall.
“Dave’s work is not just communications,” said Hall. “He is also working in the community on the ground level, as well as on strategic planning, rolling out systems and supports that create a new local education agency, and dealing with other policies and practices. We’re learning what goes into all of this.”
Written into the legislation that enacted the Innovative School District is language that also calls on the ISD to maintain a website, which currently exists at https://www.ncpublicschools.org/ncisd/.
A new website is coming online soon, said Hall, that will be accessible at www.innovativeschooldistrict.org and will be built by APCO at a cost to the state of $24,000.
It’s not yet known if APCO will be retained for the next fiscal year to continue to provide public relations services.
Public relations is an integral part of business operations in every local school district. Most districts employ at least one public information officer and maintain a website, among other functions.
In Robeson County, where the first ISD elementary school is located, school officials say they employ one public information officer, maintain a district website, purchase related supplies and provide staff professional development at an annual cost of $229,489. The district includes 42 schools that serve approximately 24,000 students.
The law governing the Innovative School District requires a partnership with a private charter school operator that will manage the day-to-day operations of schools selected for state turnaround efforts.
The ISD inked a contract with Boston-based consultancy SchoolWorks last year at a cost of $51,600 to review the only two applicants that were bidding to manage Southside-Ashpole Elementary. Those applicants were Michigan-based The Romine Group as well as North Carolina’s own Achievement for All Children (AAC).
Achievement for All Children, a new non-profit closely aligned with the charter school operator TeamCFA, was selected to run the first school. AAC will receive management fees starting at $100,000 in the first year of their contract, rising to $140,000 in year five (increases are contingent on performance).
TeamCFA manages 13 schools in North Carolina and was founded by Oregon billionaire John Bryan, a known political campaign financier who was also behind efforts to push the legislation that established the Innovative School District in North Carolina.
SchoolWorks returned initial evaluations for both The Romine Group and AAC that indicated neither were fit to serve the needs of the high poverty student population at struggling Southside-Ashpole Elementary. But after the state offered up the opportunity for each group to clarify their applications and undergo a second round of reviews, SchoolWorks ultimately chose AAC for the job.
Rob Bryan is a former legislator from Charlotte who was the key champion of the ISD legislation. He now sits on the board of AAC and, according to his most recent statement of economic interest, receives a stipend for his work with the group that will now manage Southside-Ashpole Elementary.
According to Hall, SchoolWorks’ scope of work also includes redesigning the application process for future groups pitching to run ISD schools that are selected going forward.
Other expenses associated with the Innovative School District to date:
- $103,651 ($36,070 paid out to date) to the Friday Institute for evaluating the Innovative School District’s efforts over a four year period;
- $101,120 for “Temporary Solutions,” which covers staffing costs for individuals inside and outside of the Department of Public Instruction who are working on the Innovative School District;
- $4,800 for early strategic planning conducted by Bryan Hassel at Public Impact; and
- $3,500 to Atlanta-based WrightWay Consulting for developing a framework, procedures, and best practices for the Innovative school District’s startup phase and general needs. Malika Anderson is a vice president with WrightWay Consulting and recently served as superintendent of the controversial Tennessee Achievement School District. She stepped down from that role last fall.