Antioch School Board blocks contract for “positive news” consultant due to cost, conflict of interest
By Nick Goodrich
The Antioch School Board shot down a proposed contract with Burkholder Media Group for social media and community outreach services, during their meeting on Wednesday, February 15th, amid concerns of a lack of public input, the amount of the contract and a possible conflict of interest.
The proposal by Burkholder Media Group, owned by the publisher of news website East County Today, Mike Burkholder, was for a one-year, $53,900 contract. According to the staff report, the duties were to include “assisting in communicating internally and externally on District issues, writing press releases as needed, taking original photography, and creating YouTube videos for use on District websites, blogs, social media, or by news media.”
The main objective of the proposal by Burkholder, an unsuccessful candidate for the school board in the November election, was understood by many to be the promotion of “positive news” that aims to promote the District and represent it in a favorable light, highlighting its strengths rather than focusing on its weaknesses.
The contract is part of Superintendent Stephanie Anello’s effort to rebrand the District and move away from the negative stigma attached to it, due to such things as low proficiency in math and English among K-5 students, in order to maintain the existing student population and attract new students. The AUSD has seen a continuing decline in enrollment in recent years, and Anello has been working to reverse that trend since she was promoted last year.
However, some in attendance at the meeting, including three Board Members, were concerned about a conflict of interest, since Burkholder regularly covers District proceedings through his website.
Anello defended her choice during the meeting, and offered several advantages she believed other possible vendors might not have.
“I thought that would be a plus in this case, where it was somebody who knew [Antioch], knew the history,” she told the Board. “We were comfortable with the proposal, and their ability to do this kind of work based on their media experience.”
Trustee Diane Gibson-Gray agreed, saying, “We hired the Superintendent to do a job, and one of her goals was to improve our connection with the community, with the parents. If we tie her hands, it’s defeating the purpose.”
But other Board Members took issue with the contract. Trustee Walter Ruehlig echoed concerns about a conflict of interest.
“Taking on someone who owns an online newspaper, I just think that’s a conflict of interest,” he told the Board. “Perhaps he’ll be the one we select…But I would rather have more time to throw this back and forth, have a work study session, consider alternate ideas.”
Trustees Debra Vinson and Crystal Sawyer-White also supported giving other bids a chance and receiving more input from parents and the community.
Vinson was also cautious of the dollar amount of the contract, which several Antioch residents like Julie Young and Joshua Klee thought could be better spent improving performance in Antioch’s schools. Another Antioch resident said it reminded him of the Soviet Union and its government controlled newspaper, Pravda.
“I think positive news is good, and it’s a place to start, but I don’t see the value of spending this amount of money,” said Vinson. “Ultimately, it affects the children…If we’re putting out all this positive news, but our test scores stay low, then it’s going to backfire.”
Ultimately, the Board decided to table the matter and discuss it at a future meeting.