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Education/Schools

February 26, 2014

NA-FC argues marketing costs

Services are necessary, expensive

— The cost of competing against private and public schools, specifically in terms of marketing, caused tensions to rise at the Feb. 10 meeting of the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp.’s board of trustees.

Rebecca Gardenour, board member, brought up the discussion on the agenda. She said she was concerned that the board was initially estimated to spend about $33,000 a year on ProMedia Group’s services for marketing, but have spent about three times that amount annually since hiring the company in 2011.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, tempers rose as the discussion continued. At issue is how much should be spent on marketing — and which mechanism should be used for funding — as districts continue to compete for students.

DOLLARS AND CENTS

Gardenour said that estimate came from an email in March, 2011 from Fred McWhorter, chief business officer.

McWhorter said it’s true that the board is spending more than that first estimate — roughly $110,000 in 2011, $118,000 in 2012 and $130,000 in 2013 — but those costs aren’t just for marketing. The company also manages its website and puts videos highlighting people and programs from the district on the Internet.

“A lot’s changed since 2011, it’s 2014,” McWhorter said at the meeting. “That email had to do with just the marketing aspect at that time and that absolutely has increased since that time, as well.”

But he said those costs have been shifted around the district’s budget. When the district had Dave Rarick from 2001 to 2010 as its public information officer, he was paid about $110,000 out of the district’s general fund, not including the district-owned vehicle he used.

On top of that, McWhorter said Rarick contracted out some marketing services to ProMedia and other businesses.

Now, about $75,000 of what the district spends on ProMedia’s services comes out of the general fund — which is primarily used for employee salaries — and the rest comes from its capital projects fund.

McWhorter said ProMedia charges the district $60 an hour for professional services and $95 an hour for production services. He said they’ve done more than billboards and advertisements, such as human resources videos for employees.

Dan Williamson, owner of ProMedia Group, attended the meeting and said legislation has pushed districts to compete with each other, along with private and charter schools. He said the rate it charges the district is about 35 or 40 percent lower than what it charges other businesses.

In an email, Williamson said the Facebook page ProMedia runs for the district has about 5,000 likes, its YouTube channel has 70,000 views of more than 200 videos it’s published — which averages to about 300 views per video — and the district website had about 133,000 unique visitors last year.

McWhorter said the district spent about $20,000 less than its neighbor, Greater Clark County Schools, in marketing last year.

But Erin Bojorquez, supervisor of communications for Greater Clark County Schools, said there’s more to that number. She said while her salary and that of Daniel Parish, the district’s webmaster and video specialist, come in at about $90,000, taxpayers don’t fully fund their salaries.

She said Parish’s salary is not paid from the district’s general fund. His salary and part of hers are paid from the Greater Clark Education Foundation.

She also said many of the district’s marketing initiatives are paid out of an account built by business donations. About $10,000 for public relations and marketing is built into the district’s general fund.

Greater Clark’s contract with Coca-Cola for beverage services also gives them about $15,000 a year for marketing purposes.

During the meeting, Gardenour said she wanted to see measurable results on whether the marketing plan has paid off or not.

McWhorter said the district is bringing in a lot more students from out-of-county transfers than it was before ProMedia was hired — in 2014, it has about 350 students who transferred in, bringing in about $1.59 million in additional general fund revenue. In 2010, it had 89 transfers.

He said though enrollment continues to decline overall in the district, the drop hasn’t been as dramatic as predicted by demographers in a study performed in 2012.

“I'm sure [marketing] has a little bit to do with it,” McWhorter said after the meeting. “There's a whole combination of factors that deal with that, bringing in people from the outside. Our test scores, our reputation, our facilities, but also our communication to get that out to the public, which makes them have an informed decision.”

Gardenour asked how many students had left the district, but D.J. Hines, board president, said at the meeting since students leaving isn’t tied to the marketing expenditures, the point was “irrelevant.”

Boone said Gardenour’s agenda item should have asked the board to consider seeking competitive bids for marketing services.

After the meeting, Gardenour said she’s not sure it would make a difference if she brought that item up at the next meeting.

“At this point, it’s obvious that the school board doesn’t want to discuss this and that disappoints me,” Gardenour said. “I think it’s a very legitimate question, but I have no support.”

HEATING THINGS UP

Mark Boone, board member, said Gardenour had brought up the subject several times, but hadn’t offered any actual solutions to the cost. He asked if she thought the board should put the services out for competitive bid, and if so, that’s what her agenda item should have read.

“This is like the fourth time since I’ve been on the board we’ve had the same conversation and it always come back to ‘we’re spending too much money,’ Boone said at the meeting. “So what is your fix? What is your solution? What is your future agenda item?”

After the meeting, Gardenour said the questions she asked weren’t meant to aggravate board members, even though she had brought the points up for discussion before.

“I was just trying to have a meaningful discussion about the money we were spending, whether we could save some,” Gardenour said. “That’s all it was. I’m disappointed that there couldn’t be civil discussion about ways to save money on this. That’s all I’m asking for. I know they get angry for me to keep bringing it up, but our expenses on this keep going up every year.”

The board also voted on a measure to enter into a contract with the New Albany Township Little League to use a facility the district is about to build, but Gardenour voted against the measure.

Boone is the president of the league. He abstained from the vote, but voiced his frustration over Gardenour’s vote.

“This whole project for New Albany Little League, it’s been called team building,” Boone said. “We’ve reached out to a lot of partners and we thank the board for becoming another partner in this. But I will remember that you voted no, and you and I will discuss this later.”

Hines called for order after Gardenour began to respond to Boone’s comment.

Boone was contacted after the meeting for a response, but said he would defer all comments about discussion at that meeting to Hines.

After the meeting, Hines said he emailed an apology to the board members for allowing the discussion to become so heated and would try to prevent it from happening again.

“That’s past us,” Hines said. “I don’t think it should have happened and I’ll take responsibility for not stopping it a little bit sooner. I’m not sure the reason that for a flaring of tempers was the topic.”

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