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With new communications officer and strategy, NHCS hopes to recover from years of public mistrust

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NHCS

New Hanover County Schools recently hired Joshua Smith as its newest Chief Communications Officer. He’s the fourth person to hold the role in two years -- and on his desk for review is an external audit of the department. That report identified a lack of trust in the district as its biggest challenge.

That mistrust stems from a series of disturbing allegations, arrests, and convictions involving NHCS employees — as well as a year of contentious debate over Covid-19 related openings, closings, and precautions. The district hopes to turn the page with a new CCO, but before Smith was hired, the district was already attempting to take stock of its communication department and strategy.

Auditing the district's communications

New Hanover County Schools hired the consultant, John L. White (and his eponymous firm, John L. White Communications, LLC), back in November 2020 to begin a communications audit with Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and then-Communications Director Ann Gibson. From November to April 2020, NHCS paid White $15,000.

The purpose of the audit was to conduct a report on the strengths and weaknesses of the department. White also made recommendations based on these findings.

According to the receipts from White’s work in March and April, he also participated in interviewing for vacancies in the Office of Communications and Outreach -- which was the position filled by Michelle Fiscus who left in June of this year, staying less than two months.

WHQR obtained two of the deliverable documents from John L. White: “Communications Audit Report” dated from December 2020 and a draft of the “New Hanover Schools Strategic Communications Plan” last edited in January 2021. (You can find both documents in full at the end of this article.)

The newest CCO, Joshua Smith, said “within 30 days, I will have the Strategic Communications Plan established, codified, and we’ll be operating from that.”

Main Findings & Recommendations from the Communications Audit

The audit found that the school system is recovering from “multiple highly publicized investigations and navigating Covid-19 related impacts” -- and that those crises have “eroded trust in the system’s ability to make decisions and to keep children safe.”

Bruce McKinney is a communication studies professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, specializing in conflict resolution and mediation. McKinney notes how difficult this recovery will be: “Once you've lost trust, it is so hard to get it back. [...] Because once people lose their trust, boom, things tend to go on a downward trend and getting it back -- it's extremely difficult.”

One recommendation coming out of the audit: periodic town hall meetings for employees. As White found through talking with focus group participants and individual stakeholders, “employees’ negative perceptions and the public’s lack of confidence in the district could undermine the administration’s plans and ability to achieve its mission.”

That district mission, according to the draft Communications Plan, is to “provide every student with a superior education,” through achieving the following: 1) 90% of students reading on grade level by 3rd grade, 2) Graduation rate increases to 99% in 3-5 years, and 3) 10% increase in academic achievement in all subgroups within 3-5 years.

White went as far as to recommend that the school system establish a “Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Group,” so that Dr. Charles Foust could “receive information, offer input, provide feedback, and generate goodwill.” But White said there needs to be a way to involve more of the district staff through “virtual and in-person opportunities for employees to be informed first” and to get staff feedback “before decisions are final.”

The New Hanover County Association of Educators called for this advisory group, starting last fall when the administrative staff was making reopening recommendations to the school board. Smith, along with Russell Clark, media relations manager for the district, said they’re looking into this recommendation.

Smith said one of his top priorities was to start identifying best practices to achieve better communication with “internal audiences such as principals, teachers, staff members.”

In addition to better communication with NHCS staff, White noted opportunities and challenges facing the Communications and Outreach Department, based on interviews with focus groups and other individuals.

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John L. White, NHCS Audit

The communication staff at the time of the audit, led by former CCO Ann Gibson, told White that the department was becoming more “proactive and that the Office is developing more ways to ‘tell our story' rather than letting the media drive a narrative. Employees want to see the district’s image improve.”

The new CCO, Joshua Smith, said that he does not see an adversarial relationship with the media and that if “we are professionals and we are doing our jobs correctly. [My goal] is to ensure that all of our stakeholders have timely, accurate information at their disposal.”

More Public Engagement?

Even though the draft of the Strategic Communications Plan advised establishing town halls for employees, Professor McKinney said this should extend to all those in the community:

“Have a couple of times during the month, where the school board and any concerned citizens can come and meet and have a cup of coffee and sit down and talk about issues that concern them as opposed to this formalized setting where you've got to go up and stand behind a lectern. And then a lot of people don't do that because they're intimidated by it, so they aren’t getting all the input they need.”

Peter Rawitsch, a public education activist and retired teacher of 42 years, agrees with McKinney, saying, “that would be a start, an opportunity for not only the community to ask board members questions, but more importantly, the board members actually respond to those questions. Another way that this can be approached is to hold school board meetings in different locations around the district. [...]. So I think it's really important for the school board members to be out in the community, not only listening but also engaging and talking with members to actually represent the needs of the community.”

Smith said he’d like to look into this possibility as the newest leader of the communications department, “I think that's a fantastic concept and something that we can certainly explore.”

Even though Smith has not been in the community long, he acknowledged the external factors affecting the district, ones such as the impending civil suits against the school system, and the split in the community about school reopening plans, and more recently, support for equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.

But Smith said both he and the district are ready to engage in community discourse: “I just wrapped up 21 years active duty in the Marine Corps, I've got six or so deployments under my belt and, and I've watched these school board meetings, not just here, but elsewhere. And they're passionate, but at its core, it's a fantastically democratic process, you have passionate people who have strong opinions, and the opportunity for them to come and talk about that. It's very important for the nation, right?”

And Smith said he understands the need for the district to better communicate with the public. And there’s a specific idea he’d like to implement:

“We're also going to build out a, we're calling it a transparency page, who knows what it's going to be called. But we get a lot of information requests, and we want to be able to tell the public what requests are coming in and what the answers to those requests are. And that way, it's a bit of a database that's publicly available to both increase transparency, but also prevent some overlap, a lot of folks might have similar questions,” said Smith.

Smith also said his department can fill in “missing contextual information” on issues that affect the district: “We can't just say all these things, and then not go do them, or the superintendent can't not go do them. And he will, but what we're going to do is, we're going to close that [information] gap.”

But Rawitsch said he’s requested information from the district surrounding suspension data, and that it “often takes many months for that information to appear, but I have received much of the information I have requested.” But, according to him, he can sometimes receive “incomplete information but each piece is important.”

And Rawitsch said there could be more transparency among the board’s decisions - in particular, around sharing the agenda documents earlier before each meeting. He said one example stood out from the board’s interim May meeting.

“One of the agenda items was discipline and behavior data. I was looking forward to that because those are issues that I'm concerned about -- it turned out that they didn't speak about the data at all. And if we had had the documents that were related to that specific topic, it would have certainly given us more information in terms of how we could have responded to the school board during the call to the audience.”

While Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam did give a presentation on suspension rates, she did not share specific details on the rates within NHCS. She discussed general findings like “suspensions and expulsions have continued to trend downward, but inconsistently and disproportionately” and “disproportionate removals exist among schools in general, students of color, and students with disabilities.”

Rawitsch said that both he and the New Hanover County Educational Justice Group are also working to ask the board to address Policy 2330 and Policy 2335, “which is about the advanced delivery of meeting materials. It's very frustrating that after the agenda for a board meeting is published, about five days before the meeting, that all of the attached documents that would inform us as to what's really being discussed aren't usually released to the public until maybe an hour before the actual meeting.”

Other recommendations in the audit were for the district to develop a crisis communications plan. Professor McKinney interpreted this as dealing with the fallout of several high profile cases of teachers sexually abusing students: “And one of the key things about crisis communication, if you don’t have something ready to go, what’s going to happen is there’s going to be this vacuum that’s going to to be filled by rumors, and speculation, and negative feelings toward the organization that doesn’t respond.”

However, in Smith’s interpretation this was a plan for communicating during a hurricane or an extreme weather event: “And so what these [crisis communications] do is they establish the appropriate points of contact, who are the most important media contacts, the subject matter experts -- where are they located?”

Another recommendation was to conduct opinion research, like having an annual parent survey and periodic focus groups with educators.

On Repairing Relationships in NHCS

Rawitsch, Smith, and Professor McKinney all agree that the dialogue needs to change -- instead of treating public discourse as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers, they say the district needs to build more opportunities for compromise and collaboration.

But Professor McKinney knows how difficult this can be when the school district is facing some major challenges: “I'm reading a really great book now called, “High Conflict, Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out” which just came out. And it really makes some excellent points about conflicts where people tend to view them as binary thinking: it's either, I'm going to win, or I'm going to lose, or also known as a zero-sum game. And the idea that you can collaboratively work out a conflict and the end result is going to be much better.”

Rawitsch, too, said he doesn’t “expect every board member to agree with my positions, or I don’t expect the public to agree with all of their positions. But having dialogue, having conversations, allowing people to speak and communicate and civil ways to share ideas, and to realize that it doesn't have to be all or nothing, that there can be compromise.”

And Rawitsch said even with this contention over controversial issues, he’d still like to receive a meaningful follow-up to his questions. “It’s very frustrating to publicly ask the school board members questions, and never get an answer. That’s unacceptable. [...]. People can certainly send emails to board members, but my experience is that many times you’ll just get a ‘thank you for your concern’, and not an actual response. So it would be great to have a dialogue with all the board members on a regular basis.”

McKinney said, mediation, a process where a neutral third party facilitates conversation between two people -- or select representatives from a group -- and lets them come up with their own solutions, is a tool that the school system and the board could consider implementing: “because it just seems that human beings haven't really evolved very far in conflict management.”

And that if the district and the board do not adequately address conflicts, McKinney said, they tend to fester: “If you don’t have a vehicle for resolving conflicts, they don't get better, they get worse. Yeah, which I think is, in some way indicative of what's happened in the current situation.”

One could argue that the conflict between Board Chair Stefanie Adams and Board Member Judy Justice has worsened as evidenced by the recent 4-3 ‘no confidence’ vote in Justice -- and the effort led by Justice and Board Member Stephanie Walker in censuring Adams. Even when Adams assumed her chair position in September 2020, there was public conflict between the two.

Professor McKinney said that one of the most understood things about mediation is that “people who go into mediation, they assume there will be a winner or a loser, or that they’re going to have complete control over the outcome. There are some people in higher administrative positions who would never do that, but mediation has a pretty rich history, and my only regret is that it’s not used more.”

At the conclusion of the audit, John White stated, the district “has a unique opportunity to begin anew by creating a model communication program to keep internal and external stakeholders informed, increase transparency, create staff and community buy-in, and strengthen its reputation over time.” And White added, “by taking advantage of new opportunities, NHCS can slowly rebuild trust over time.”

Below: Communications Audit and Draft Communications Strategy