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.

5 Comments to “Antioch School Board blocks contract for “positive news” consultant due to cost, conflict of interest”

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  2. RJB says:

    Good reading. I’m glad questionable business deals using public money is called out.

  3. Fernando Navarro says:

    Lets see what the dictionary has to offer:


    Practice of partiality

    Cronyism is the practice of partiality in awarding jobs and other advantages to friends or trusted colleagues, especially inpolitics and between politicians and supportive organizations.[1] For instance, this includes appointing “cronies” to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications.[2]

    Cronyism exists when the appointer and the beneficiary such as an appointee are in social or business contact. Often, the appointer needs support in his or her own proposal, job or position of authority, and for this reason the appointer appoints individuals who will not try to weaken his or her proposals, vote against issues, or express views contrary to those of the appointer. Politically, “cronyism” is derogatorily used to imply buying and selling favors, such as: votes in legislative bodies, as doing favors to organizations, giving desirable ambassadorships to exotic places, etc

  4. Sherra says:

    This is not just a conflict of interest problem. Antioch has a spending problem. Paying for news and updates to the tune of $54,000 is hands down nuts. I take real issue with Diane Gibson-Gray saying we are tying Anello’s hands. That is total malarkey. Unless you want to be ousted next time you come up for re-election, Diane, it would behoove you and the board to hold Anello accountable for spending that much on something that all parents I know do not support. Perhaps that avenue needs to be axed because of expense. You can surely table this to your hearts content but there are a lot of us Antioch parents that are not going to forget this topic.

    We have a lot of smart people in this city that I am sure could come up with better ideas. Sometimes one needs to ask is this a NEED or a nice to have. I will help you out with a few suggestions :

    1) stand up for your teachers. The children are running this asylum in AUSD so do what you need to do at the state level to stop this nonsense violence from students against the teachers. I have an engineering background and was seriously considering substitute teaching but after seeing what these children get away with has completely changed my mind.

    2) sometimes you just might have to do bullet points in a letter that goes out quarterly. Parents who want to know what is going on will find a way. Trust me. I am an extremely busy parent and I get the information I need.

  5. Marty Fernandez says:

    Horrible problems at Park keep pouring into our neighborhoods. An officer on a call the other day told me this is so bad it is worse than Stockton. Thanks for doing nothing Antioch Unified School District. What we need is to bring back the policing we had under police chief Jim Hyde.

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