PR costs stack up for cash-strapped District 209

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By SETH STERN

Despite numerous questions from residents and officials alike regarding its spending habits and a widespread admission that the district is running on empty, Proviso High School District 209 continues to pay six figures per year to an outside advertising firm in addition to its internal public relations costs.

The district paid $12,445 to Chicago-based Danielle Ashley Advertising for public relations consulting services provided in November, according to an invoice dated Dec. 13, 2005. It paid $15,777.50 for Danielle Ashley's services in October, while the bill for September was $21,605, according to records attained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by the Review. The total for 2005 was just under $150,000.

The company charges the district amounts ranging from $100 per hour for work done by assistant account executives to $200 per hour for work done by the company's vice president, Paul Davis.

Dist. 209 also employs a full-time communications director, Angela McDaniel. Chief Education Officer Robert Libka estimated McDaniel's salary at between $60,000 and $70,000, but asked the Review to file another FOIA to get the exact number.

Libka said the district is currently reviewing its spending while preparing its next budget, and that public relations spending is one of many categories that will be scrutinized.

"Danielle Ashley is not immune from the axe we will wield to balance our budget, (though) we don't have any current misgivings with the quality of their work or their usefulness," he said. "We're looking at doing a 3 to 4 year representation or study on what spending should be in relation to demands. We've also looked at other schools of similar size."

Oak Park and River Forest High School District employs Kay Foran, who is paid $58,969, as its communications director. According to Foran, the district does not use outside vendors for public relations. Lyons Township High School District employs Jennifer Bialobok as its communications director, and she and her assistant work for a total salary of $79,849. Bialobok said the district does not use outside vendors for communications. Several other area school districts did not respond to the Review's inquiries.

The company was originally brought into Dist. 209 by former board president Theresa Kelly in 2002. At that time the district did not employ a full time communications director. Many have speculated that the company's political connections to current president Chris Welch may be the reason for their continued employment.

"Do you see my picture in any of their newsletters? That should tell you the whole story," said board of education member and Welch rival Charles Flowers.

According to Illinois State Board of Education records, the company has made 54 political contributions since 2002, including an in-kind contribution of $6,417,64 to Welch's 2005 school board campaign and a $5,000 campaign contribution to Proviso Democratic Committeeman and Welch ally Eugene Moore.

Davis did not comment on whether the company would be making a similar in-kind contribution to Welch's current campaign for 7th District State Representative.

"Whatever activity we might do, it's legal, it's sound, and we will not commit any breach of policy or practice or the law, and anyone who suggests that is wrong," he said. "For those who would raise the question of whether or not our services are tied to campaign contributions, they are not, absolutely not, and some of them, if they were on the majority side (of the school board), would not be raising those questions."

Welch did not return calls for comment for this story, but during a past interview said the district had been "extremely cost conscious" in its dealings with Danielle Ashley. He said that their services are necessary to shed light on the positive happenings at the district that are often ignored by the media.

Libka said he was unaware of Danielle Ashley's campaign contributions.

"I believe that it's important that the district act at a high ethical level that survives any legal tests," he said.

Libka said that Dist. 209 currently has no regulations regarding campaign contributions from vendors. "I believe, though, that it's something we could talk about and look at for the future, because (contributions) are something that could cause division," he said.

Davis said that Danielle Ashley's major roles at Dist. 209 are to handle special events, such as the recent grand opening ceremony for the Proviso Math and Science Academy, and crisis situations, such as the recent bomb scare at Proviso East.

The company also lays out two school district newsletters, the quarterly Moving Forward, a large double sided, 2-page full color foldout distributed to residents throughout the township and the monthly Highlights, a smaller one-page mailing.

McDaniel said she typically writes much of the content for these newsletters, while also writing press releases and taking photographs at more routine events that do not require Danielle Ashley's presence.

"All of our work is unquestionably legitimate, and we work very hard to earn our money. There's not any inflation, and there's certainly no deception," said Davis, who said that similar work is "very common" in other public school districts. Davis said that Danielle Ashley also lists Matteson/Richton Park District 159 among its clients, though its work there is on a contractual basis only.

Danielle Ashley bore the brunt of criticism on the state level in early 2005 when officials questioned a $1 million contract with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office and a $2.4 million contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) for handling public relations regarding renovations to the Dan Ryan Expressway, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The records attained through the FOIA do indicate Danielle Ashley's work on the newsletters and special events mentioned by Davis, but also contain numerous charges for vaguely described meetings and teleconferences to discuss "media strategy," many of which lasted 3 to 5 hours. In several instances, such as a 5-hour meeting on Nov. 15, two or more Danielle Ashley representatives were paid for the same meeting.

The firm also regularly charges for several hours of work editing or finalizing press releases written by McDaniel and for drafting speeches to be delivered by district officials including Libka and board president Chris Welch at press conferences.

At one recent press conference to announce a new union contract for teachers, Davis was paid for 3 hours of work writing speeches, while Assistant Account Executive Johnnie Swan was paid for 18 hours of work for attending the press conference and working on both pre and post-conference press releases.

In late July and early August, Danielle Ashley was paid for several media training sessions with Libka after he was hired to replace fired superintendent Greg Jackson. Davis billed the district for a four-hour media preparation and strategy meeting on July 27, as well as another 1.5 hours for preparing media message points the following day. Account Supervisor Kevin Williams charged the district for another 5-hour meeting with Libka, also on July 27, as well as a similar 4-hour meeting on August 9. Both Davis and Williams also charged the district for work on a news release to announce Libka's appointment.

"Basically what we went through with Libka was what we were going to say, how we were going to say it, and strategic discussion about the specifics of those duties," said Davis, noting that some of the training was intended to "get everyone on the same page" regarding how a crisis situation would be handled.

By far the most costly event in recent months, however, was the Proviso Math and Science Academy grand opening ceremony, which took place Sep. 15. The firm was paid a total of over $14,500 for services directly related to the event, for which Davis was paid $720 to serve as Master of Ceremonies. Other charges included fees for attending planning meetings, ordering balloons and banners, writing copy for plaques, and writing the program for the event.

"Promoting a product no matter what the product is, takes money. Some might say that the (grand opening ceremony) was an expensive event, but from a marketing standpoint, it was necessary to help promote the school, its students and staff," said McDaniel, noting that the event increased the visibility of the new magnet school.

Though estimates have since varied, former superintendent Greg Jackson approximated Dist. 209's current deficit at $14 million before he was fired in July.

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