System’s perception worries EBR board
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system has tapped a veteran school public relations man to take over an area that has lacked a communications leader for 10 of the 18 month that Bernard Taylor has served as superintendent.
Keith Bromery is a veteran school spokesman with 12 years of directing communications for large school systems in Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta. He started on Dec. 2 as the school system’s interim director of communications.
He is replacing Susan Nelson, who quit abruptly in early July after just five months on the job.
The position had previously been vacant for five months since Chris Trahan, the communications director for six years, left for another job in September 2012.
Bromery said he finds working with schools fulfilling because schools that work change children’s lives.
“You don’t want to lose that focus,” he said. “We’re about educating students to the highest degree possible.”
Bromery, most recently director of communications at Florida State University, was selected after a long national search. His salary is about $96,000 a year and he reports directly to Taylor.
He arrives as the parish school system, one of the largest in Louisiana, struggles to attract students who have more options than they used to. These options include a growing number of charter schools, private schools accepting publicly financed vouchers, and independent school districts.
Some residents in southeast Baton Rouge have twice tried unsuccessfully to create a new school district for their area, which would be the fifth such district in the parish. Now, they are seeking to incorporate much of the unincorporated part of the parish to create a new city called St. George.
Taylor has, among other things, sought to expand magnet programs and other popular offerings to better compete.
“We’re going to be developing new opportunities for students,” Taylor said. “I want people to know about those opportunities.”
When Nelson was hired, she had a marketing budget, but much of that money was diverted in the spring to hire two lobbying firms to advocate for the school system in the Legislature, including fighting the southeast breakaway effort.
Nelson ended up shelving a marketing campaign as a result.
Taylor said he’s not sure if a new marketing effort for the school system is necessary or not.
“I want him to come in and look at what we’re doing and make some recommendations,” he said.
“It’s not about clever jingles and slogans,” he added.
Bromery comes into a system led by a School Board often at odds with the superintendent and itself, occasionally sparking long, acrimonious debates.
The school system has been erratic in responding to news development much less promoting its own more positive news. It has issued only a handful of press releases since late August, when the number two person in that department, Sonya Gordon, left for another job.
Those tensions boiled over at an Oct. 5 School Board retreat.
Several board members pressed Taylor for more effort to improve public perceptions.
“Our goal is to have a strong media relations team in place right now,” said board member Barbara Freiberg.
Taylor said better public relations personnel will go only so far, alluding to bad press generated by board members themselves.
“We’re not hiring miracle workers here,” he said. “A strong team has to have something to be strong about.”
On Friday, Freiberg said she wishes the school system had more aggressively highlighted recent improvement in school performance scores, a list big enough to bring 11 schools out of F to D status. Only one traditional school, Claiborne Elementary, remains an F; the other F schools are either independent charter schools or alternative schools.
“I think we need some dramatic improvement. I look forward to what (Bromery) has to say,” Freiberg said. “I understand his credentials are excellent. He will really have to really learn the landscape here and determine how we can go forward.”
Board member Craig Freeman, who teaches communications at LSU, said Bromery represents fresh eyes and will see things that he and others who are perhaps too close to things don’t.
“I hope that this position gets us to look at things through the public’s eyes a lot more,” Freeman said.
Bromery has a diverse background. He grew up in Washington, D.C., earned a bachelor’s of arts at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He spend the early years of his career in journalism working for newspapers, radio and TV stations. In 1991, he became a public relations person for an energy company
“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career covering fires or murders or whatever the pop event of the day was,” he said.
He ended up working at four energy companies along the way, including a stint with Entergy in New Orleans in the late 1990s.
In 2000, he shifted to Chicago public schools where he worked as chief communications officer under then chief executive officer Paul Vallas, who later went on to the superintendent of public schools in New Orleans. He went on to spend six years in Ft. Lauderdale and three years in Atlanta.
“These school systems, they have very similar challenges, everything from performance to budget to facility issues to just stuff that crops up involving student misbehavior,” Bromery said.
In Atlanta, he entered a hot zone when he arrived in 2009.
Then-Superintendent Beverly Hall had already said she was leaving, but not before a test cheating scandal erupted that Bromery said dominated the entire time he was there.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigations identified potential wrongdoing from more than 170 employees, including Hall, and criminal charges were later brought against some of them.
Bromery said through the years he’s tried to keep school districts focused on highlighting their core work of improving student learning and not be thrown off track by crises that arise. He said from what he’s seen East Baton Rouge Parish has an impressive track record of student achievement that he plans to share.
“It’s real,” he said. “It’s not just fluff and PR.”
Bromery said he will use a variety of ways to broadcast what’s happening including traditional news media, social networking, as well as using parents and students as ambassadors.
“It takes a village,” he said. “It’s not just me doing things. It’s the administration, the principals, their parents and their students and on and on from there.”
“I think everybody is responsible for marketing,” he said. “I don’t think you put just on one person.”