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Schools Hire PR Firm to Publicize Financial Plight

July 24, 1986|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

Faced with the need to convince the community of its financial plight, the Beverly Hills Unified School District is doing what corporations and movie stars do to attract attention.

It has hired a high-priced public relations firm.

The district signed Braun & Co. to a $30,000 six-month contract to help convince the public of the severity of school budget difficulties and raise funds.

The firm has listed among its accounts the state Department of Education, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles Department of Airports, Walt Disney Productions and Great Western Saving.

Ultimately, school officials said, the public relations effort may help the district win the two-thirds vote needed for passage of a tax increase to cover an annual budget shortfall of about $2 million.

School board President Frank Fenton said he has been pushing for the district to hire a public relations firm for several years. "We are in the midst of a major financial crisis but there are still a lot of people who are not aware of our problems," he said. "This is the only way I see out in saving the school district."

Fenton said that Braun & Co. "has a separate department with experience in bond issues and propositions. That definitely was a consideration in hiring them."

The idea of a school district retaining a public relations firm to get the message out about its financial troubles is not new. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District did it in its successful campaign for public support for a tax increase election in 1984.

The Beverly Hills contract with Braun states that the firm "will provide special services and advice for the benefit of the district with respect to the development of additional revenues and the improvement of district communications with key audiences."

Fenton said it would be illegal to hire the public relations firm to persuade voters to approve a tax increase. "We only want to make sure that the facts get out," he said.

If the facts are presented correctly, he said, "I'm convinced the community will respond by making sure that the school district has the funding it needs."

A Boost to Morale

Fenton also said that good public relations could help worker morale. "Because the district no longer enjoys high reserves, we are going to be in a constant state of negotiation over salaries," he said. "We need to find a better way to communicate to our staff so that morale and other problems that arise through poor communications don't affect the classroom and the children."

Critics of the decision to hire a public relations firm argue that the district already provides more communication to its residents than most other districts because Beverly Hills televises all its school board meetings.

Kenneth Eaves, president of the Beverly Hills Education Assn., criticized the expense.

"I find the whole thing questionable," he said. "They are paying a company $30,000 for public relations for six months. That is more than the cost of a good teacher. If they are financially strapped I find it hard to believe that they do not have enough people floating around who could do public relations."

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