12/30/2013 05:42 EST | Updated 03/01/2014 05:59 EST

CBE Spending Public Dollars for Public Perception

In the news in Calgary recently, good questions have been asked about dollars spent by Calgary's Public School board on communications. Some $2.7 million was spent in 2012, which is over $25 per student. During my recent run for trustee and my time as Chair of ARTICS (Association of Responsive Trusteeship in Calgary Schools) it is a question I was asked most often. Sentiments from the public range from "How many PR people do they need?" and "How much do they spend on PR?". These questions are asked in a rhetorical way as the public perception is that the board itself is "top heavy" and that includes some 20-plus employees in the communication department. Some have commented "they aren't doing a very good job," but is that true?

Much like the strategy of the communications team and public trustee's at the CBE is to blame the media or my group, ARTICS for it's poor public perception, the public feels the communications team at the CBE is to blame. Both are false. Don't shoot the messenger can be used in both cases. In as much as the media can and should not ignore good stories that speak to the public interest, the communications team at the CBE is also limited by what it can say to justify what are, quite frankly, bad decisions.

Some of these decisions include a new downtown head office that has been described by a local real estate expert as the worst deal in Calgary real estate history. Add to that; giving raises to top level executives after a government budget cut (per student) and before the board cut high school funding 11 per cent, ; trustee trip to Palm Springs on a wisdom sharing conference; extended trip to New Zealand by Chief Superintendent; three retirement parties for a retiring Superintendent and much more. This adds up to a public mistrust that their public tax dollars are not being spent wisely and furthermore our publicly elected trustee's seem to not be able or willing to stop it.

So how does the communications team spin this? How do they justify these decisions? I don't know the answer other than keeping things quiet, doing damage control and be on the defensive, always. Now bring in a high stakes PR consulting firm and the message from the public school board is we would rather hide and defend than actually take a hard look at the decision-making and make better decisions with your public dollars.

The 2013 election brought some new trustee's to the board, many of which campaigned on more transparent, public decision making and will hire a new Chief Superintendent soon. With new leadership and time this thinking may change. This Blogger is ready and watching.