Concord school district hires PR firm to help with messaging following Leung report  

  • Concord School District Building Courtesy

Monitor Staff
Published: 7/7/2020 3:36:30 PM

Concord School District is going to pay a communications consultant $275 an hour to help respond to the public and after the release of a 100-page report investigating administrators’ response to student complaints about former teacher Howie Leung.

A redacted version of the report, compiled by Massachusetts attorney Djuna Perkins, is expected to be released next week.  

On Monday night, the Concord School Board voted to hire Karen Schwartzman of the Boston-based firm Polaris Public Relations to do public messaging for the district in response to the sexual assault reports, the district’s ongoing conversations about racial equity, and the plans for reopening the school in the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With those three very large, important topics for the board, I felt it was important that you have a communication media expert to be able to use over the next several months to assist us with that work,” interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy told the board Thursday.

Schwartzman will be brought in on a $10,000 limited-term contract to do about 35 hours of work over the next six months, at a rate of $275 per hour.

Schwartzman has experience in media relations during times of crisis, including sexual assault cases at schools. She served as a spokesperson for Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan last year when an employee was fired after admitting to sexual contact with a student. In Massachusetts, she was the spokesperson for the New England Conservatory in 2012 when renowned conductor Benjamin Zander was fired for hiring a registered sex offender; for the Pike School in 2013 when a former student alleged sexual abuse by a teacher; and for the Groton School in the early 2000s when a student alleged sexual abuse by peers.  

Not all board members agreed with the decision.

Board member Tom Croteau said the proposal to bring on board a communications professional was “great news.” 

“I had worried when we talked about our issues coming up in the very near future regarding our sexual assault [case] whether or not we could get a single spokesperson so the message would always be the same and the message would be complete,” Croteau said. “I was worried to death that three or four or five different board members would be nailed down to try and talk about certain things.”

Board member David Parker expressed concern about bringing in a person to speak for board members.

“We are elected officials, voted to speak our opinions and represent the public,” Parker said. “I am not sure I am the most comfortable giving up that right and responsibility unless I know how this spokesperson is going to be used.”

Murphy and school board chair Jennifer Patterson said the communications consultant will not speak on behalf of the board, but will work with the administration to develop messaging. 

“I don’t think….the hiring of a communications consultant would take away the voice of any board member,” Patterson said. “We’re elected officials, we should say what we think is appropriate to say and we will, but particularly when we talk about the return to school and the anti-discrimination work that is really going on within the administration, I think it would be incredibly valuable to have that single message and to have Kathleen have that help to get the message out there.”

The school board voted 6-3 to hire Schwartzman as the communications consultant. Board members Patterson, Croteau, Chuck Crush, Liza Poinier, Jim Richards and Danielle Smith voted yes, while board members Barb Higgins, Gina Cannon and David Parker voted no.

Plans for school reopening

As far as Concord schools reopening in the fall, Murphy and assistant superintendent Donna Palley updated the board on the district’s plans.

About 60 paid staff members are working this summer, Palley said, in planning groups formed around four different topics: teaching and learning, social-emotional well-being, technology and infrastructure, and physical well-being. 

They are planning for three models of teaching: in-person, where students re-enter classrooms; remote learning that is done online; and a hybrid model where both options are utilized.

“Our teaching and learning considerations include the fact that there may be times when we need to do remote and in-person instruction at the same time,” Palley said. The district is working to collect information on students and staff who may not be able to participate in person.

The district is following recommendations made by the Department of Education’s task force, though Palley said the guidelines are currently very broad.

“It literally is almost up to the district to decide everything. I am hoping that DHHS is going to put something more on that [list],” Palley said. “I don’t know to expect that this is it or it is going to be filled with more detail, we don’t know yet.”

The district is looking to limit the number of students who are in each building, and maintain stable groups of students that have minimal crossover between them.

Staff members have gone into classrooms over the summer and set them up to get an idea of what maintaining a six-foot distances would look like. 

All non-essential visitors will be banned from entering school buildings. There will be no large group gatherings and no field trips.

For transportation and busing, the district is considering placing monitors on buses to make sure kids are social distancing, planning new bus routes that make sense given a reduced number of students in school. The district will be polling parents to see how many are willing to transport their own children to reduce the numbers on buses. 

The district is also working to meet the technology demands necessary for remote learning, including making sure families have reliable internet access and devices at home and that the software applications being used to teach students are safe.

“At times it feels like we have lots of time, and at times it feels like we have way too little time,” Palley said. “Too much as we wait for guidance from the state, certainly too little when there is going to be lots of work to be done.”

The fully-developed plan for reopening will be presented to the school board in early August.

In the meantime, members of the public are encouraged to email the board with  questions and suggestions.

“We have set a goal for ourselves that we will be ready to communicate to the public after the August 3 school board meeting,” Murphy said. “I think communications will be essential in making sure our families and our staff know what the next steps are.”

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