A public relations firm is providing crisis communication work for the Anchorage School District at a cost of $12,000 a month in the wake of what police have described as sexual assault allegations involving Dimond High School students.
The work by the firm, Strategies 360, is outlined in a memorandum that a district spokeswoman emailed to the Anchorage Daily News this week along with a statement from Superintendent Deena Bishop. Bishop said in the statement that working with Strategies 360, "is all about helping ASD get clear and transparent information out to our students' families and the public."
The memorandum provides some insight into how the district positioned itself after a reported incident involving members of the Dimond High School football team, which began to unfold publicly on Aug. 20, the first day of school.
Some members of the Anchorage School Board said in interviews this week that they supported the district working with Strategies 360, or didn't object to it. Board member Elisa Snelling said the expense was worth the cost of avoiding a potential lawsuit down the line.
"I'd rather spend $12,000 or $20,000 on a PR firm that will help us appropriately filter — say what we can, redact what we can't — then have somebody go and open their mouth and we have a $1 million lawsuit," Snelling said. "It's just so easy to have that happen and quite honestly there are a lot of eyes on how everything is being handled, and communication is a big part of that."
Strategies 360 is charging $12,000 a month, with the first month of work going from Aug. 27 to Sept. 27, according to the memo.
"Discussion of a longer term agreement, if necessary, would follow," it says.
Anchorage School District spokeswoman Catherine Esary said Thursday that the district didn't have a signed contract with Strategies 360. She said the firm and the district had agreed to the cost, time frame and work in the memo.
She did not answer a list of other questions this week including what specific work the firm had done for the district so far and what pool of money the fee will come from. The memo doesn't have a date on it, and she said she didn't know what date it was from.
Esary emailed the memo to the Daily News on Tuesday. The Daily News has been requesting any contracts between the district and Strategies 360 regarding the reported Dimond High incident since Aug. 29, the day after an employee with the firm was at an evening, closed-door meeting with school board members and the superintendent.
Strategies 360 bills itself as a full-service communications, research and public affairs firm. It's based in Seattle, and has several offices, including one in Anchorage. The firm's work for the school district will include "language development and editing" and "strategic communication processes and planning," as well as media relations such as press releases, opinion editorials and media briefings, the memo says.
"Strategies 360 is helping ASD get all appropriate information to students' families and the public on the Dimond High School football situation," Esary said in an email.
The incident involving the football team was reported to Dimond High staff on Aug. 20. Officials have said the reported incident happened during the team's trip to Fairbanks for an away game against Lathrop High School on Aug. 18.
The team stayed at the high school overnight, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
Since then, the district has fired three Dimond High football coaches, including the head coach, and disciplined students, though the superintendent has not said how many students were disciplined or how. The superintendent has not said what reportedly happened on the trip, but has described it as "serious inappropriate behavior."
The Anchorage Police Department also launched an investigation into what it called "sexual assault allegations" involving Dimond High students. Police announced Wednesday they had sent the case to state prosecutors who will decide on any charges. Police said they had not made any arrests.
Bishop said in the statement accompanying the memo that the district is "as prudent as possible with its resources."
"Using state and taxpayer dollars wisely is imperative to us," she said. "Balancing student privacy laws, employee privacy rights, and the public's need and right to know is a task ASD wants to get right so that it is properly serving all of these constituents. Strategies 360 is helping us review and improve processes and develop plans for effective public communications in difficult events."
The superintendent can enter into contracts up to $500,000 without school board approval, and provides quarterly reports to the board on purchases between $100,000 and $500,000.
It's not unheard of for a district to hire outside help when an unusual situation arises, said Michelle Egan, a public relations specialist in Anchorage who is also on the Public Relations Society of America Board of Directors. Egan previously worked as the communications director at the Anchorage School District for about a decade.
"I think anytime you have an unusual event or something that needs attention that goes beyond the resources you have, then it makes perfect sense to hire outside counsel," she said. "Sometimes it's more efficient to access someone with specific expertise than to try to handle it internally."
Reached by phone this week, some Anchorage School Board members said they supported the district working with Strategies 360. Board member Dave Donley said he needed more information and Board member Deena Mitchell said she was staying neutral.
"Crisis management is challenging and I don't think it's unusual for organizations to seek help with that," Mitchell said.
Board president Starr Marsett was on vacation and referred questions to Mitchell, the vice president. Board member Bettye Davis did not return calls.
Board member Andy Holleman said he didn't object to bringing on Strategies 360.
"I can understand there just being a lot of concern about how big it was and obviously there was potential for a lot of public discussion, and that goes beyond what we normally deal with," he said.
Board member Alisha Hilde said she didn't expect the payment to Strategies 360 to be an ongoing expense. The cost was not surprising, she said, given the scope of the work.
The school district's work with Strategies 360 comes as the Anchorage Education Association teachers union and the district remain locked in contract negotiations. The union members' contract expired June 30. The union has asked for a list of items, including raises. Tom Klaameyer, union president, said he understood that district administrators had to manage crisis situations.
However, he said, "I'm hearing from members that they always seem to have money for their crises — to manage their crises — but what about the crisis in the classroom because we have 35 kids in a room."