Raising Eyebrows at School District

The Detail


The Sarasota County School Board has been in the news recently, with some interesting financial moves and recommendations. The school board’s recent decision to hire (and a few weeks later, fire) a PR firm has raised eyebrows. School board member Eric Robinson recently called for the elimination of salaries for school board members. On the horizon is the 2018 school board race, and the potential for dark money to continue to influence these local elections. Across the nation, corporate charter schools are promising improved educations for America’s children through bringing in the private sector. This is a critical time for Sarasota County schools, for our community to decide what kind of a school system we want working for us.
The school board recently hired a local PR firm, Three Six Oh, to the tune of $225,000  (for a two-year contract). One might wonder why a school district with a full communications staff would need to outsource public relations work.  
Shortly after the school board announced hiring Three Six Oh, a Herald-Tribune investigation found numerous online comments being made on articles were coming from the same IP address as Candice McElyea, Three Six Oh’s president. An IP address is unique to an internet modem or router, and while numerous devices may use the same internet access point, comments made from that internet modem or router will all share the same IP address.  
McElyea’s company IP address was attached to numerous online comments supportive of her clients (like the developer who paved over supposedly protected wetlands at University and Honore to build a new Whole Foods). In addition, investigative reporters were not able to link the different social media profiles used to actual people. McElyea denied using fake profiles, but acknowledged she hires " ‘brand ambassadors’ that do comment on (news) stories.” Sounds like business-speak for online trolling.  
Superintendent Todd Bowden, a former client of McElyea’s, requested Three Six Oh’s resignation when the newspaper shared their research with him. McElyea has also done PR work for Eric Robinson’s 2016 school board campaign, as well as Mr. Robinson’s Political Action Committee, “Making a Better Tomorrow.”
While he supported the school district spending $225,000 to retain his campaign’s PR firm, Mr. Robinson recently called for the elimination of school board members’ annual salaries of $41,000 per year (saving $225,000—interesting). Eliminating salaries would encourage people to run “for the right reasons,” he says. As a manager of millions in Political Action Committee funds, Mr. Robinson’s work has permitted him to earn a lush six figure consultant fee and an ongoing stream of accounting fees. His own accounting firm recently donated $120,000 to the PAC “Making a Better Tomorrow”—the same PAC donated to his campaign, and the same PAC hired Ms. McElyea’s PR firm as well. Nice for those PAC dollars to circulate among friends. And if you earn and donate hundreds of thousands through shuffling PAC dollars, maybe forgoing a $41,000 salary isn’t a big deal. 
Sarasota schools deliver an education that ranks at the top among Florida’s public schools. Given this excellent performance, an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude may be warranted. Beware of future online comments supporting candidates with a charter school agenda and gushing about the benefits of corporate charter schools. You may instead want to ask “Is that you Candice?”

Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government.

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