After tossed lunches, Utah district eyes $49,999 PR hire
School board will decide on March 4 whether to pay Vox Creative to improve SLC district’s image.
Published: February 19, 2014 06:42PM
Updated: February 19, 2014 10:43PM
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Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Parents and children come and go at Uintah Elementary School about noon Thursday Jan. 30, 2014.

As fallout continues over news that dozens of kids’ lunches were dumped last month because of overdue payments, Salt Lake City School District leaders have quietly decided to try to hire a public relations firm.

The district issued a request for proposals from public relations firms for up to $49,999 — $1 shy of what’s required for full board approval, according to the district’s administrative procedures.

However, the board will decide at its March 4 meeting whether to approve payments to Vox Creative, the agency selected by a district committee, if there is a bill for services at that time, said Jason Olsen, district spokesman.

The deadline for companies to submit proposals was Friday. The request was not posted on the district’s website but was sent to seven potential vendors, Olsen said.

Heather Bennett, board vice president, said she, board president Kristi Swett and Superintendent McKell Withers made the decision to seek public relations help. It was not mentioned at a board meeting earlier this month or a board study session Tuesday evening.

“Many districts in the state have multiple people in public information, and we’ve only got one,” Bennett said Tuesday.

She said the board had considered hiring a firm years ago but decided against it. In light of the recent lunch issue as well as other questions, she, Swett and Withers decided it was time to look into it, Bennett said.

“We wanted some advice fairly quickly,” she said.

The district made national and international news when dozens of kids had their cafeteria lunches taken from them and thrown away at Uintah Elementary last month because their parents were behind on payments. The kids were given fruit and milk instead.

Since then, the district has apologized and changed its procedures, pledging to only serve kids full lunches from now on and no longer talk with kids about their parents’ debt. Still, the situation continues to make news as parents demand more answers about who was responsible and as district leaders continue to take action every few days.

District leaders have said they’re still investigating what happened, and announced this week they’ll have an independent auditor look into it as well.

Uintah parent Jessica Guynn, whose daughter had her lunch thrown away, said Wednesday she wonders why the district needs to hire a PR firm.

“I obviously wish the money could go toward actual education for children rather than repairing the reputation of the district,” Guynn said.

Board member Michael Clara also said he feels it’s not a good use of tax dollars.

“We’re here to educate children, not worry about our image, and that could have been solved had they dealt with this honestly in the beginning,” Clara said.

He called it “devious” for the district to put out a request for proposals for $1 less than what’s required for full board approval. He said he wasn’t aware of the request until he heard about it unofficially, not from the district.

Bennett, however, said she doesn’t see any significance to the $49,999 amount, and she doesn’t know why that amount was chosen specifically. Plus, she noted that the board does get a list of invoices to be paid at meetings, regardless of the amount of those invoices.

“If you tried to bring every RFP [request for proposal] before the board for discussion, the business of the school district would grind to a halt,” Bennett said.

As for spending money on a public relations firm, she said, “We spend money on what we think we need in order to improve the overall operation of the district and sometimes that means you have to spend on things that are not directly involved in the classroom.”

Olsen, the district’s spokesman, makes a little more than $75,000 a year.

The request for proposals seeks “public relations and information management and consultation services” to consist of tasks including crisis communication management. The request also asks proposing agencies to, “Present a detailed analysis of the most recent incident involving the Uintah lunch room incident at Uintah Elementary School.”

Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder of Snapp Conner PR in South Jordan and a columnist for Forbes.com, called the district’s handling of the situation so far a “case study in horrific PR.”

She said the district should have apologized immediately and worked to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

Olsen did not apologize for the incident during an initial interview with the Tribune a day after it occurred, but he did apologize in a statement later that evening, saying the district had learned more since that first conversation. Then, more than a week later, the district announced it would formally change its procedures, only serving full lunches and no longer discussing debt with kids.

The district and its board made news several other times as well, putting employees on leave, returning those employees from leave and announcing Tuesday night the board would arrange an independent audit.

“The longer a situation winds on, the more it spirals out of control, and now even the attempts to amend the situation become part of the news,” Snapp Conner said. “It feeds on itself like a snowball.”

Olsen said that’s part of the reason the district wants to hire a PR firm, to see what the district did well, did poorly and where changes can be made in the future.

Federal reaction: Taking away food punishes, stigmatizes kids

The January seizure of lunches from dozens of students in debt at Uintah Elementary got the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program.

Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary, wrote to state superintendents across the country, listing steps to prevent potential issues in dealing with children with unpaid meal balances. The department believes it was an “isolated incident,” he wrote.

But he added, “we believe that such an issue, should it arise again in the future, should be handled in a way that first and foremost respects and protects students from undue embarrassment and stigma.”

The letter continues: “Denying or taking food away from children is a form of punishment and stigmatizes children whose parents are behind on payments.”

According to the letter, federal law requires the department to study how schools handle children with unpaid meal balances, and the results of a national survey will soon be released. The department will also convene a group in the “near future” to find best practices having to do with the issue.