Flak flack: New County info position criticized

Last week, a former Albemarle County teacher's lawsuit claiming religious discrimination against the county was dropped. Here's how Superintendent Kevin Castner learned he was no longer being sued: He read about it in the Daily Progress.

School board member Gordon Walker contends that the County hasn't done a good enough job getting information about the schools out to the public. And in the case of Castner, it seems like the County doesn't keep its own staff posted. Walker added $15,000 to this year's $104.3 million budget for a pilot, part-time communications specialist position, and the board approved the position by a 4 to 3 vote on April 24.

Board member Gary Grant dissented on that vote. "In my opinion, it's going to be somebody who gets news out the school system wants out, not what the public should hear," he says.

Grant, who is not running for reelection, set a high standard for information flow with his Constituents' Report, the most detailed account of government proceedings that's come out of the county– or the city, for that matter.

He calls the new position a "spin doctor," and he says that earned him scowls from fellow board members.

"It's ironic that I was the information candidate, and now I'm voting against the communications specialist position," says Grant.

The school system has a communications plan that "looked great on paper," says Castner, but was never implemented. "Our public information is fragmented now," he adds.

"I kept hearing from people who want to hear more how tax dollars are being spent and what's happening in the schools," says Walker.

And even though over $700,000 in expenses had to be trimmed from the budget, Walker feels the addition of the new position was important enough to be paid for from a board reserve fund.

"I can think of places where $15,000 can be better spent," says Grant, but he admits that amount doesn't go very far in a $100 million budget.

He fears the new hire– for whom there's no job description yet– will send out feel-good press releases on field trips and concerts, and synopses of how test scores are improving– without detailing areas where achievement falls short.

Walker disagrees. "It's going to report the good, and it's going to report the challenges," he maintains. As for how many hours the $15K new hire will work, Walker guesses it will be one or two days a week.

Castner didn't include the communications position in the budget he sent to the board and says he didn't anticipate it would pass. Still, he points out that other school systems roughly comparable in size to Albemarle's 12,400 students have someone to handle media relations.

Why can't the school system use county spokesperson Lee Catlin on a regular basis? That was not an option, according to Castner, Walker, and Grant.

"County government has one-third the staff of the schools," adds Castner, "and they have a full-time position."

Meanwhile, the City wants a communications specialist to handle its two public access television shows. The position pays between $27,000 and $34,000 a year.

Maurice Jones, the city's director of communications, says this is not a new position– it's replacing an employee who's leaving.

In times of tight budgets when city fees are increasing all over the place, Jones justifies hiring a new assistant. "It's vitally important to provide information to the public about what's going on with city government," he says.

Jones explains why he can't say exactly how many people watch Inside Charlottesville and Talk of Charlottesville on public access TV: "We don't know for sure because it's expensive to get ratings, and we're not going to do that."

However, Jones says, "Not a day goes by that someone doesn't say they saw our shows and compliment them."

Jones also handles public relations for the city school system and thinks it's unlikely the school system would get its own spokesperson.

"Their system has 4,500 kids," says the county's Castner. "That's one-third of ours."

Grant also criticizes the school board for not publicizing an amicus brief filed by the Virginia School Board Association along with the Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and national school board associations in the NRA's suit against the county.

Maybe that's where the new communications specialist would come in. Although he's doubtful, Grant says, "I will wait to be proven wrong."