Past scandals coupled with recent teacher layoffs and budget cuts have given the Scottsdale Unified School District a public-relations black eye that's slow to heal.
So bad, for example, that the lack of public trust was among the reasons district officials in May abandoned plans to ask voters to pay for much needed school repairs.
"They have a reputation problem. There's no question," said Anne Hickie, a former school board member and longtime schools activist.
The district has had its share of problems, she said, but the real culprit is a history of limited communication with the public.
The governing board would like to change that and boost the district's image. During a two-day retreat last weekend, one of the goals board members and senior administrators set for the district was to strengthen community support. They've begun looking at some ways to do that including publishing a newsletter, holding town hall "listening sessions," and releasing monthly financial reports.
The district's newest board member, Joel Feldman, said that when he was just a resident and taxpayer, he heard little from the district. And he's concerned because he doesn't see an effort being made to change that.
"I don't see anything going out into the community," Feldman said. "Anything that would advertise that we're doing better, that we're good — telling our story."
Part of the problem is what some in the district refer to as their ongoing "sentence" for past indiscretions, particularly a 1998 state investigation and more than three years of probation for bid-rigging, kickbacks and withholding records.
Hickie said other blemishes include layoffs; a failed, controversial bond election and budget override in 2001; and the buyout of two superintendents.
The heart of the matter, however, lies in a history of playing it close to the vest, she said.
"You don't do things that way in Scottsdale, because I think too many people are inquisitive and want to know," Hickie said.
Board member Christine Schild said that the black eyes are no worse than in other districts, they're just not explained enough.
"Everybody has their share of problems, and we are no exception to the rule," she said. "We need to do a better job of communicating the good things that are happening, as well as the fact that we are aware of the problems and we are taking care of them."
The secret rests in displaying positives and negatives in the light of day, she said.
"If we communicated those two things on a regular basis, then I believe the Scottsdale Unified School District will enjoy a sterling reputation," Schild said.
District communications have been scaled back in recent years for cost savings, and the district now relies largely on its Web site and e-mail.
A newsletter was discontinued in 1998, and a move to revive it was rejected in 2001 by the board. The district television station that broadcast board meetings was killed at the start of last school year.
Superintendent Barbara Erwin said the board has made it clear that she should limit non-classrooom spending, and the district's public relations efforts are by all employees coming into contact with the public.
The district has a public information officer with a small staff, but no money is applied to marketing or advertising, she said.
By focusing on their high performance and test scores, Erwin said, the community support should follow.
"The best public relations is not in advertisement. You know what it is? Doing a good job," she said.
But Feldman said gaining the support of the general public — not just parents — means barraging the community with information about their schools, until it is a generally held notion that they run a good district.
He's working on the possibility of relaunching the newsletter, and communicating the district's spending in a clearer way.
When it comes to negatives, Feldman said the best approach is not to tiptoe around issues.
But that hasn't always been the case. When a child molestation scandal hit in January, the district waited nearly a week to hold a news conference, and officials were difficult to reach.
"I think you hit it right up front, and you explain it," Feldman said. "Don't pussyfoot around with it, I'd just throw it right up there. That's how I think you deal with negatives."
Tempe Elementary School District had its share of negatives when Superintendent John Baracy took over in 1999. They faced closing schools and low enrollment. Baracy made marketing and relationships with the media and public a high priority.
"For years, I think public schools have just kind of assumed that a newsletter, some school newsletters, that was kind of the extent of marketing," said Gary Aungst, district community affairs and marketing director. "We live in a completely different world now."
Aungst now heads an aggressive promotional campaign for the schools, including steady invitations to the media, promotional videos for each school and running movie trailers plugging the district.
Tempe Elementary now enjoys near peak enrollment.
"This district has always had quality programs, they just haven't had the avenues to tell people about them," Aungst said. "That was Dr. Baracy's vision, let's tell our story."