Some New York taxpayers may be surprised to learn that they are footing the bill for public relations services for school districts at a time when difficult decisions are being made over teaching staff reductions.
Why Are Some Schools Hiring Public Relations Firms?
School public relations specialists are essentially hired to spread the word about the good things being done by students, with the hope that getting the information out into the media will help districts get their budgets passed.
These specialists do photography at student recognition nights at school board meetings, write press releases on the latest district news, and assist with school publications.
They prepare newsletters, flyers, posters, brochures, and articles for district websites. Additionally, school public relations specialists attend major district functions, such as board of education meetings, homecoming, and graduations, to compile stories and photos for dissemination to local media outlets.
Good Use of Taxpayer Money?
Public relations may be a nice service to have, but some taxpayers feel it isn't appropriate at a time when teachers and programs are being reduced due to the new tax cap.
"Districts have been busy cutting the excess from budgets in recent years, so it doesn't make sense to pay for public relations services," said Hauppauge resident Crystal Motta, a New York taxpayer who is fed up with constant increases in school spending. "PR services for schools isn't really an educational expenditure. Students or community volunteers could do the same job for free, without putting a burden on taxpayers.
"I simply cannot believe school boards are proposing we pay someone to put together newsletters. This is not a good use of taxpayer money."
The new tax cap, which was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June 2011, limits the increase in property taxes each year for school districts and local municipalities to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. It proved to be a true game-changer, as districts struggled this year to deal with fewer resources than what was available just a short time ago.
Difficult Decisions for School Officials
In light of the new tax cap and the continued pressures of a difficult economic climate, school boards across New York needed to make difficult decisions when it came to planning for the 2013-14 budget. In some cases, programs were cut and staff was reduced, while public relations services were retained or added.
Dozens of districts have 2013-14 school budgets on the table that include public relations services that will cost $30,000 or more annually, and that doesn't sit well with some taxpayers.
"$30-$40K yearly might not sound like much, but that money could instead be used to fund academic programs or hire part-time teaching staff," said Glen Cove resident Dave Arslanian, who lives in a district that retained Syntax Communication as part of its 2013-14 budget. "School boards are approving the hiring of firms to print up newsletters and calendars, while teaching positions are being eliminated. I don't see how that makes sense."
From Long Island to Queens and all the way north to Westchester County, a large number of New York-based schools have given the go-ahead to use taxpayer money to pay for public relations services from companies such as Bohemia's Syntax Communication, Great Neck's Zimmerman/Edelson, and Milestone Events.
In Nassau County, Bellmore, Bethpage, East Meadow, Hicksville, Glen Cove, Elmont, Freeport, Hempstead, Levittown, Locust Valley, Long Beach, Lynbrook, Malverne, Manhasset, Massapequa, Mineola, Plainedge, Syosset, Valley Stream, and Wantagh schools each confirmed they hired Syntax or another public relations firm to stimulate public interest in the districts.
Farther east on Long Island, Babylon, Bayport-Blue Point, Copiague, Deer Park, East Islip, Harborfields, Island Park, Islip, and West Babylon are just some of the districts that have confirmed adding or retaining public relations services in their 2013-14 district budgets.
Annual Cost of Over $30,000
The hiring of Syntax Communication was a major item of discussion at the April 1 Board of Education meeting at New York's Blind Brook School District, as the board contemplated retaining the PR firm's services at an annual cost of $37,000. Additionally, Briarcliff Manor's annual public relations contract runs taxpayers $30,570.
"Board members need to place the focus on retaining academic programs and preserving teaching positions," Arslanian added. "Save the PR services for musicians and celebrities, not students."
Should New York schools use taxpayer money to fund public relations services? Let us know in the comments section.
Eric Holden, a lifelong New York resident, has three years of experience working in school public relations. Follow him on Twitter @EricHolden.
- Public relations
- New York