The South Burlington School District spent roughly $29,000 from Jan. 1 – Aug. 11, on marketing and communications surrounding its three budget asks, the last of which passed muster on primary election day.
The money was spent promoting the three budget votes, school board vacancies and a bond vote for a $209.6 million new building proposal.
Roughly $18,600 was focused on the district’s bond proposal and future planning.
The district also spent $15,000 on an initial fee for public relations firm Junapr Communications, and $424 on two newspaper ads in December 2019, according to a community member-filed public records request and confirmed by the district’s accounting supervisor, Sue Spear.
The Other Paper will follow up with the district on marketing and communications expenses made before January.
On top of spending, the district also established a $350,000 line of credit to help flesh out the middle/high school and athletic complex proposal, including financial advisors, designs by Dore & Whittier Architects, an independent cost estimate by PC Construction Company and hiring Junapr.
It did not end up drawing on the line of credit, according to Gary Marckres, director of finance.
Community thoughts and questions
Rhonda Pacquet has lived in South Burlington for 30 years and said she has no problem with the district presenting a budget, informing voters and clarifying questions.
“They are not to sell a position, yes or no,” she said.
Yet she believes the district might have done just that, and points to a brochure that was inserted in The Other Paper on the proposed middle/high school and athletic complex as proof.
“The glossy brochure seems to have more than facts. It had a lot of assumptions in it,” Pacquet said. “I don’t want my money spent on a yes vote promoted by the district.”
Pacquet didn’t draw issue with all the district’s election communications. She was sent a postcard from the school with facts about when and how to vote ahead of the Aug. 11 budget revote. But she wondered if it was a necessary expense on top of several advertisements about the vote in The Other Paper.
“Why did we spend so much money on a third thing and did they need to mail it out? How many people got it? How much did it cost us?” Pacquet wondered. “At the very least, I would like the district to be transparent and to tell me how much of their communication money they spent on the third vote.”
Marla Weiner, of South Burlington, also has questions about the expenditures.
“I was flabbergasted to find out when they were first pushing for the entire new school buildings. the scope of marketing that they were doing with very little input from the public,” she said. “We elect our school board members imagining that they have our best interests at heart, the taxpayers, as well as our kids.”
Weiner said she, too, took no issue with the postcard informing taxpayers of the upcoming election, but she is curious how much the district spent on its marketing efforts in relation to the votes.
And she said she was surprised that the district established a $350,000 line of credit without taking that action to the community.
“I would like to know in comparison to previous budgets, how does it compare to what they typically, historically, have spent to basically do the required notice,” Weiner said. “It’s one thing to keep people informed. I think it’s important that they show the budget by line item they’ve got to present that.”
With a bond vote and three budget votes, the South Burlington School District spent more on election marketing and communications this year than the average year, Superintendent David Young confirmed.
“When you don’t pass it the first time you have an obligation to inform the electorate of what’s changed,” Young said.
But communications spending on the second and third votes was standard, Young said. The district has mailed out postcards with the election date in the past and has also advertised its proposed budget in The Other Paper.
As for the first vote, Young confirmed there was more communications spending than normal —because, he said, the school was both informing the public about its proposed budget, and about master planning and visioning efforts and its $209.6 million bond proposal.
This year wasn’t the first time the district has hired a consulting firm to help prepare communications, he said. The district didn’t have the “bandwidth” to manage all things needed to effectively inform voters, he said. So the district hired Junapr to help “effectively communicate and articulate a message related to the need for the building project,” he said.
“In some cases, that’s really good. It takes the bias out of it. It lets somebody just help facilitate the meetings where administrators and board members can participate in roundtable discussions,” Young said.
He said the line of credit was in an effort to be transparent about the fact that the district had not budgeted the funds required to flesh out master plans for a bond vote. The district could have waited and put a line item on a future school budget proposal for master planning related designs, cost estimates, marketing and communications, but Young said that would have meant the district could not have put the bond proposal to a vote this year.
And, he said, waiting would have meant a “significant increase” in the cost of the project. The district would have to go back out for revised cost estimates and more, he said.
Young does not believe district communications around the budget and bond votes interfered with a fair election or tried to sway a vote.
“I think that it is pretty expected that boards, city councils, certainly across Vermont, and many, walk from providing information to also advocating,” he said.
The school board shared what it learned about building conditions with the public, which Young believes has been validated through recent needs to address air filtration and lead in school water.
“They did not say, ‘Vote yes.’ They wanted to make sure that they equipped the community with as much information as possible,” Young said.
“Our board has always been careful not to say how you should vote but informing you of what is going before you. In some cases, what I put before you needs some additional information, or what I would say validation,” he continued.