CMS Communication Breakdown
A newly released outside audit of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ communications department revealed comprehensive flaws in the division’s performance and effectiveness, tied largely to “inadequate strategic communications leadership.”
So naturally, Superintendent Heath Morrison reacted to the $20,000 audit by firing the executive director in charge of the department shifting the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship, sliding the department’s communications director into a newly created administrative position and replacing her with another CMS bureaucrat with a fancier title and higher salary.
LaTarzja Henry, the incumbent executive director of communications, will become the Ed Shed’s latest assistant superintendent, charged with overseeing community partnerships and family engagement. Kathryn Block, director of CMS’ quality management/auxiliary services department, was tapped by Morrison to become the district’s new chief communications officer. Block originally came to CMS in 2010 on a Broad Foundation residency in urban education and previously worked in marketing and communications for Kraft Foods and the Campbell Soup Company.
Block will pocket $160,000 a year for her new chief communications officer gig, nearly doubling her current salary of $94,000, while Henry will continue pulling down $127,000 a year at her new post.
“Community and family partnerships are critical assets to CMS,” Morrison said of Henry’s new assignment. “Strengthening our partnerships, as well as creating new ones, will help us provide more comprehensive services to our students and schools.”
In announcing Henry’s appointment at this week’s school board meeting, Morrison highlighted her enthusiasm while door knocking for drop-outs with him, part of recent district initiative, as an example of Henry’s positive community engagement. The communications audit of Henry’s old department, however, hardly paints a stellar recommendation for someone to be handed the reins as an assistant superintendent.
While the audit notes that CMS’ communications department has been hit by recent budget cuts and staff reductions and that, “praise for [Henry’s] performance is strong even from those who do not believe she is the right person to lead the district’s overall communications effort,” a deeper dive into how the department has performed during Henry’s tenure at the helm is less than glowing.
The whole audit report, replete with the obligatory bashing of local media for providing negative coverage of CMS’ myriad mishaps and screw-ups, can be found here. Some samplings of its findings of the communications department under Henry’s leadership:
Critics of CMS’ communications efforts said the department leadership regularly fails to strategically plan for the public release of important news and information about the district to better inform the public and the news media. The result often is, according to the department’s critics (including some on the communications department staff), a missed opportunity to engage the community and inform the media regarding major initiatives of district and community-wide importance.
communications department members acknowledge that a lack of internal planning and leadership in the communications department plays a significant role in the communications breakdowns. Asked if the district has any kind of overall strategic communications plan, a communications officer responded, “no. There used to be (under past leadership). Everything is piecemeal.”
Including, it would seem, a reluctance to work outside the standard 9-to-5 shift; this from the audit report, on Henry’s departmental time clock:
One strong concern raised in some interviews was that when communications support is needed after normal work hours or on weekends, district officials have regularly had a difficult time contacting the departmental leadership. “After 5 (p.m.), we don‘t have consistent leadership (in communications),” a district executive said. A staff member of the communications department acknowledged, “It’s the culture to hit the door at 5 p.m. We have zero on-call schedule.” The communications staff member said “there are times when people call and say, ‘I can‘t get in touch with’ so and so . . . If it’s on a weekend, it’s hard to find anyone.”
Communications department staff members gave differing accounts of the department’s staff meeting schedule and the effectiveness of those staff meetings. One communications staff member said “Staff meetings tend to be rambling affairs and not particularly organized … We don’t have any leadership.”
Performance of district internal communications under Henry’s leadership also drew poor reviews, namely that …
… the district has no internal communications plan, no set of internal communications protocols that describe how key decisions and deliberations are communicated throughout the organization to every employee and how employees can provide feedback on those decisions and deliberations.
The lack of an internal communications plan or set of protocols leaves individual district leaders – executives, department heads, and school principals – to decide how, when, or even whether to communicate critically important information to the employees who are charged with carrying out those key decisions.
The audit also revealed a disturbing disconnect between CMS’ communications department, under Henry’s leadership, and the district’s community partners, some of the very people Henry will likely be working with in her new assistant superintendent post. Again from the audit report:
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg community has a number of active, influential nonprofit and business-sector organizations that could and should help the school district provide information to the public and facilitate two-way dialogue. Leaders of some of those organizations interviewed reported they have sought to engage the district’s communications department to assist in communicating with the public, but those offers of help, they said, generally have not produced interest or action.
Communications department officials pointed to the reduction in staff assigned for such work as developing and continuing community partnerships. But leaders of some community organizations that badly want to help the district said it is difficult to get a response from the district.
“With the number of schools and the energy in this community of those who want to get involved, there either has to be some additional support within the district for the opportunity for community collaboration,” a community partner said. “There are a lot of people who want to volunteer, but people say, ‘I tried to volunteer and nobody at school responded, or the district.’ I didn‘t know what to do when I got in the building. I just didn‘t volunteer anymore.”
So this is the history that Henry brings to the Ed Shed as the newly minted assistant superintendent for community partnerships and family engagement? Along, apparently, with $127,000 worth of door knocking for drop-outs?
For a new schools superintendent who keeps repeating that his top goals include streamlining district efficiencies and bolstering public trust through improved communications, Morrison sent exactly the wrong message on both fronts this week.
Take it away, gentlemen:
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