The Antioch Unified School District Board has shelved a proposal by Superintendent Stephanie Anello, for Mike Burkholder, founder and publisher of the news website Eastcountytoday.net, to create a media platform, highlighting positive stories from the district.
The idea, brought forth by Burkholder, an Oakley resident, called for the creation of a district news website and assistance with public outreach, as well as help with creating press releases and photography and implementing of a social-media strategy for $53,900 a year.
The board tabled the proposal last week after three of the district’s five board members expressed various concerns, and it became clear that the agreement wasn’t going to be approved.
Anello said late last week she was unsure how she would proceed with the matter and didn’t know if another proposal would be brought forth in the future.
The concerns of board members Walter Ruehlig, Debra Vinson and Crystal Sawyer-White centered on Burkholder’s conflict of interest as a local website publisher and former school-board candidate, lack of other bids for the work and the use of funds, which board members argued should be used for other purposes.
“I think a lot of us were stunned – I thought I had dirt in my eyes,” said Ruehlig, the board’s president. “Basically, my position is that the issue would have been problematic enough as is with all our other pressing district needs.”
Vinson declined to discuss the matter, because it is still ongoing, but said during the meeting that she had received phone calls expressing unease about the proposal.
“There is just a lot of concern,” she said. “A lot of people feel there is a conflict of interest.”
The three public speakers at the meeting all spoke against the proposal, touching on the perceived conflict of interest, Burkholder’s alleged verbal attack of one of his website’s readers and the desire to see the proposal’s funds go elsewhere.
Subsequent comments on social media reiterated public concerns.
“Glad to see Burkholder didn’t get the gig,” said Dave Roberts. “It was a crazy idea to spend so much money on such a negative person to put a positive face on a troubled district. Vinson is exactly right – it would do much more for the district’s image to spend that $53,900 to improve academic outcomes, rather than waste it on a flawed spin doctor.”
Anello said that the proposal had nothing to do with Burkholder’s website, Eastcountytoday.net, and that she didn’t seek other bids because the proposal was Burkholder’s own intellectual property, thus proprietary. She thought the proposal financially advantageous for the district, considering public-information officers in other districts usually cost about $125,000 a year when factoring in salary, benefits and a retirement package.
“There are so many amazing students, employees and families in our district, doing fantastic things,” Anello said. “An AUSD media platform and an individual dedicated to highlighting their achievements would be a great benefit to the district and to the public at large.”
Burkholder said he was unsure if the district’s board or members of the public fully understood the proposal.
“If the proposal was better explained and they understood the benefits of all the components working together, I am confident it will move forward,” he said. “Following the decision, I’ve received a great deal of support from the community who could not understand why the board took no action. The comments were that they would like to see this type of service implemented by the school district and possibly by others, such as the City of Antioch.”
According to the proposal, Burkholder would create a district website – using the EastCountytoday.net model – that would become ‘the single source for AUSD news and information.’ He would also work with the superintendent to identify positive stories or information that could be shared with the community, pitched to local media and shared on the district’s website and blog.
Burkholder said that undertaking such work wouldn’t be a conflict of interest.
“I do not see that there is a conflict of interest, because the content would be created by their stories, their photos and their comments,” he said. “They are not buying news, as some claim. They are creating their own and distributing information through platforms and processes created by Burkholder Media.”
Board member Diane Gibson-Gray, who believes the measure would have been approved if it had come from a different vendor or media outlet, said the district could benefit from increasing its online presence.
“I’ve often said that ‘absent information, people will make up their own,’ and this holds true for both positive and negative situations,” she said. “Building an AUSD community website, supported by social-media bundling, and building an audience will provide the opportunity to showcase positive stories, students, employees and more.”
To view the complete proposal, visit bit.ly/2lDEymQ.