Critics Question School's Pricey PR Contracts

Washington Township Spends $36K Per Year

Some in Washington Township are questioning why the school district is spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on two public relations firms.

Washington Township Schools contracts with Nora Hiatt for about $6,000 a year and Lee\Willis Communications, a PR firm run by former 6News anchors Clyde Lee and Diane Willis, for about $30,000 a year, 6News' Kara Kenney reported.

"Why are taxpayer dollars being used to hire public relations for a school? The amount of money spent as you have uncovered is equivalent to the cost of a teacher," said Greg Wright, former Washington Township school board member. "I think there are times when you have a crisis when you need outside advice, but to have an ongoing contract, let alone two ongoing contracts, I'm not sure that's a good use of taxpayer dollars."

6News checked with more than a dozen school districts in central Indiana and did not find any with current contracts with a public relations firm.

"I do not see the need for an outside firm. I need to get these dollars to the classroom," said Decatur Township Schools Superintendent Don Stinson, who said he shares the PR duty with another employee.

Beech Grove Superintendent Paul Kaiser told 6News the district just ended its contract with Lee\Willis Communications due to budgetary reasons.

Most school districts that 6News spoke with said they employ a public relations coordinator at a salary of $40,000 to $90,000 who also handles a wide variety of other duties.

For example, Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley handles community and media relations, special events planning, external and internal publications, speech writing, TV production, special projects and supervises a staff of 10.

Critics said Washington Township, which has cut more than $1 million from its budget in the last two years, needs to take a closer look at its contracts with the public relations firms.

"It's excessive spending and unnecessary. They have a lot of ways to communicate. They don't need a PR firm," said Penny Bigelow, who has lived in the township for 34 years.

"I would encourage the administration or the board to discuss the issue in a school board meeting and decide whether to continue those contracts," Wright said.

Washington Township Schools Superintendent James Mervilde declined an on-camera interview Thursday, but defended the expenditures in an e-mail.

"In the absence of a full-time media and communication specialist in the district, these vendors provide excellent value to the district," he said. "I will not be available for any further comment on this issue, via e-mail, phone or on-camera interview."

School board President Tony Dzwonar said he was also unavailable for an on-camera interview, but told 6News he felt the expenditure was appropriate and he's confident the district is being efficient stewards of taxpayer dollars.

Documents provided to 6News show that one of Lee\Willis Communications' job duties is to handle media inquiries. When contacted for an interview Thursday, Diane Willis wrote, "There's nothing we can do today."

Hiatt did not respond to e-mails or phone calls Thursday.

More Information:

  • Nora Hiatt Agreement Letter
  • Lee/Willis Communications Agreement