Lexington officials have informally talked about hiring a full-time communications manager, but at the moment the district isn’t likely to spend the money on such a position, said Margaret Coppe, chairwoman of the School Committee.
Instead, when a crisis flares up, the school district turns to Karen Schwartzman, a longtime public relations consultant who works with several independent and public schools. For her time beyond the initial 20 hours of work covered by the retainer, Schwartzman charges $300 per hour.
Schwartzman first worked with Lexington several years ago when some parents complained about a book on same-sex families that the district used to teach tolerance. That brought national television stations, radio talk show hosts, newspaper reporters, and bloggers to Lexington.
This fall, Superintendent Paul Ash called on Schwartzman to handle the public outcry after a parent of a former Lexington elementary school student wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that his daughter was kept in a small time-out room to calm her down. Schwartzman pushed back on elements of the initial story that Lexington officials disputed, and doggedly defended the district.
She was again on hand earlier this month dealing with media calls about an athletic director who was placed on unpaid leave for one week. The athletic director had gotten her counterparts in the league to change the basketball schedule to allow for later games for the girls’ teams after she sent out an e-mail embellishing a parent’s complaints alleging gender inequality.
Lexington deals with smaller controversies internally, but when an issue is likely to get national attention, the district brings in outside help, according to Coppe, the school board’s chairwoman.
“It’s more when it starts to reach a wider audience,” she said. “When things start to appear in the press, that brings in negative light on the school system, or people who work in the school system.”
Beth Wagner, who was hired in 2011 to help Marlborough’s school district with its communications needs, said having one point-person can make the district’s message clearer and more consistent. “It’s a good person to have in the district to field and almost triage needs from the public,” she said.
But there are some situations even a spokeswoman can’t diffuse.
Then-Marlborough superintendent Anthony Pope, who hired Wagner for the position, was dogged by controversy last year and clashed with some staff, residents, and the teachers union. The backlash proved too strong, and he decided to step down effective last July.
The city’s School Committee voted Saturday to hire Saugus Superintendent Richard Langlois as the district’s new leader.
Langlois, who doesn’t have a communications representative in Saugus, said he isn’t sure how he feels about having one in Marlborough. But he added that it could help spread the word about positive news that might otherwise go unnoticed.
“It’s a luxury I haven’t had,” Langlois said. “Educators don’t market the quality of what we do very well, and I think that’s an opportunity to take advantage of that.”
Globe correspondent Calvin Hennick contributed to this report. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.