Riverhead schools Superintendent Augustine E. Tornatore said the district's contract costs...

Riverhead schools Superintendent Augustine E. Tornatore said the district's contract costs for public information services wouldn't approach the up to $120,000 salary, plus medical and retirement benefits, he said he understands other districts pay to an employee to perform those functions.  Credit: Randee Daddona

School districts on Long Island paid about $4 million to communications and media consultants this past school year, up from more than $3.6 million the previous year, according to figures provided by regional Boards of Cooperative Education.

Over half of the Island's more than 120 districts rely on the consultants to produce newsletters, marketing and publicity materials, videos and news releases, as well as mailings for the annual May budget vote. They also create and manage websites and social media, and handle media relations, producing statements on behalf of district administrations in times of controversy and arranging media interviews.

Consultant contracts, which also pay for services such as legal counsel and busing, have been an increasing feature of Long Island school districts over the last two decades, providing services without hiring employees with pensions and benefits. Districts say contracts are cost effective versus paying salary and benefits to a district employee. The funding is included in budgets that the districts approve each May.

Robert Lowry, a deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the more complicated communications environment created by social media and intense interactions with school district constituencies increased the demand for greater professional expertise.

“There are times when it is simply necessary for a superintendent or principal to in fact be the spokesperson, but I also think the communications environment has become so much more complex now,” he said. “I hear complaints that rumors on social media have much more credibility than information put out on websites and official channels in general.”

Districts also might find it more cost efficient to hire consultants with the technological or professional skills not readily available within the district, Lowry said.

The communications contracts centralized through regional Boards of Cooperative Education, including Nassau BOCES, Eastern Suffolk BOCES and Western Suffolk BOCES, are partially reimbursable by the state Education Department and were almost all with two firms in 2021-22: Syntax Communications, based in Farmingville, and Great Neck-based ZE Creative Communications, formerly Zimmerman/Edelson.

Nassau BOCES contracts totaled $2,520,329.07 in 2021-2022; Eastern Suffolk BOCES contracts totaled $1,364,854,80; and Western Suffolk BOCES' sole contract, for Copiague, was $82,172, according to information provided to Newsday by the three boards responding to Freedom of Information Law requests. Eastern Suffolk BOCES did not include a contract for $130,289.50 with the Lindenhurst district in the information provided to Newsday. 

Individual contracts ranged from under $10,000 annually for website management, to more than $140,000 for the Locust Valley district, which paid for a Syntax employee to work full time in the district. Most contracts ranged from the mid-$30,000s to mid-$90,000s, which varied according to the level of service and the number of buildings in the district.

Contract amounts do not cover districts’ payments for services not covered by BOCES consultant contracts, and do not include independent contracts between districts and other public relations consultants.

For example, the Hempstead Union Free School District pays a $60,000 retainer for public relations services from Todd Shapiro Associates, which it hired independently of BOCES.

Christina Symelidis, chief financial officer of Syntax, which was founded in 1999 with a focus on marketing communications for public entities such as school districts, said clients receive value for their expenditures.

“We’re not charging by the hour; we’re working off a retainer, and we don’t go over that,” she said, noting the districts contracted for different levels of service and opted for services from the firm’s media team, art and website departments, and either a visiting or in-district consultant. Most districts, she said, chose the standard service with a Syntax employee who covers several districts.

Symelidis said the company was instrumental in helping districts get information out during the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. “They really relied on having a well-seasoned communications company,” she said.

Tim Hoefer, president of the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, said that if districts determined such services were useful, then hiring an outside consultant might be less costly in the long run than hiring a full-time employee with health and pension benefits.

“I’m sure there are arguments for why they want that” service, he said. “Whether contracting with a PR firm is the cheapest way to do that, I don’t know. I don’t have enough details to know that.”

Ryan Ruf, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said local school boards determine whether there is a need for a public relations consultant when budgets are put together, and then they sign up with their regional BOCES for services. The contract goes through a competitive bidding process through BOCES, or districts can choose from a list of already qualified vendors.

“We bill them monthly a tenth of the contracted amount agreed on between district and the vendor,” said Ruf, who previously worked as assistant superintendent for business in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district. “The subsequent year is when the state aid goes to the school districts to help offset the cost of the prior year’s expenditure.”

Andrea Vecchio, of East Islip Tax Pac, a taxpayers' group, dismissed the need for communications services for districts as just another added burden on taxpayers.

“We don’t need PR in school districts,” she said. “To pass budgets, we would be much better off if there were no PR and a straight vote put to the people. It’s against the law to promote one side over another in an election.”

She added, “It’s all this peripheral stuff where money is lost. If you care to be able to stay in your house and pay less taxes, they do more than they should be doing.”

But as the means of communicating become more varied, districts are relying more on the outside companies. In Riverhead, the district spent more than $100,000 on the services of two firms in 2021-22 — before shifting its entire account to one of the companies for a cost savings in the coming school year.

Over the last school year, the district paid about $88,000 to Syntax and an additional $16,500 to ZE Creative Services, in part to develop a new, more user-friendly website. In 2022-23, ZE will handle the entire account for an annual cost of $87,615. The district will be reimbursed by the state through BOCES for a portion of the costs in the following year.

Riverhead Superintendent Augustine E. Tornatore said in a statement, provided through ZE, that the district has retained a public information agency for more than a decade. In this new school year, ZE will continue to manage the website, “handle the district’s public information and social media, and produce the district’s newsletters and calendar. The agency will also provide certain on-campus photographic services and work with the superintendent and district officials in any crisis situation that may arise during the course of the year.”

He said the district's contract costs wouldn't approach the up to $120,000 salary, plus medical and retirement benefits, he said he understands other districts pay to an employee to perform those functions. 

A portion of the district's cost is eligible for state aid reimbursement through BOCES, Ruf said. 

"Some districts have a BOCES aid rate as high as 90%, some as low as 36% — the higher rate goes to higher-need districts," he said, adding that need is determined based on property wealth and income wealth in the district. 

"We have what we call a cooperative service, and each are sent to the state Education Department for approval," he said. "They’ll say, 'Yes, we approve this service, we think this service is worthy.' When approved by the state we are able to offer it to our component school districts."

The districts then decide whether to participate in the cooperative service, he said. 

"Each year we definitely add several school districts to this cooperative service," Ruf said. "We may lose one or none, and add one or two. ... It does not have to be outsourced, but if you don’t have that right person on staff, the best option is to outsource it to a firm."

School districts on Long Island paid about $4 million to communications and media consultants this past school year, up from more than $3.6 million the previous year, according to figures provided by regional Boards of Cooperative Education.

Over half of the Island's more than 120 districts rely on the consultants to produce newsletters, marketing and publicity materials, videos and news releases, as well as mailings for the annual May budget vote. They also create and manage websites and social media, and handle media relations, producing statements on behalf of district administrations in times of controversy and arranging media interviews.

Consultant contracts, which also pay for services such as legal counsel and busing, have been an increasing feature of Long Island school districts over the last two decades, providing services without hiring employees with pensions and benefits. Districts say contracts are cost effective versus paying salary and benefits to a district employee. The funding is included in budgets that the districts approve each May.

Robert Lowry, a deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the more complicated communications environment created by social media and intense interactions with school district constituencies increased the demand for greater professional expertise.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • School districts on Long Island paid about $4 million to communications and media consultants this past school year, up from more than $3.6 million the previous year.
  • Districts say contracts are cost effective versus paying salary and benefits to a district employee. The funding is included in budgets that the districts approve each May, and the contracts are partially reimbursable by the state Education Department.
  • Individual contracts ranged from under $10,000 annually for website management, to more than $140,000 for the Locust Valley district. Most contracts ranged from the mid-$30,000s to mid-$90,000s.

“There are times when it is simply necessary for a superintendent or principal to in fact be the spokesperson, but I also think the communications environment has become so much more complex now,” he said. “I hear complaints that rumors on social media have much more credibility than information put out on websites and official channels in general.”

Districts also might find it more cost efficient to hire consultants with the technological or professional skills not readily available within the district, Lowry said.

Contracts centralized through BOCES

The communications contracts centralized through regional Boards of Cooperative Education, including Nassau BOCES, Eastern Suffolk BOCES and Western Suffolk BOCES, are partially reimbursable by the state Education Department and were almost all with two firms in 2021-22: Syntax Communications, based in Farmingville, and Great Neck-based ZE Creative Communications, formerly Zimmerman/Edelson.

Nassau BOCES contracts totaled $2,520,329.07 in 2021-2022; Eastern Suffolk BOCES contracts totaled $1,364,854,80; and Western Suffolk BOCES' sole contract, for Copiague, was $82,172, according to information provided to Newsday by the three boards responding to Freedom of Information Law requests. Eastern Suffolk BOCES did not include a contract for $130,289.50 with the Lindenhurst district in the information provided to Newsday. 

Individual contracts ranged from under $10,000 annually for website management, to more than $140,000 for the Locust Valley district, which paid for a Syntax employee to work full time in the district. Most contracts ranged from the mid-$30,000s to mid-$90,000s, which varied according to the level of service and the number of buildings in the district.

Contract amounts do not cover districts’ payments for services not covered by BOCES consultant contracts, and do not include independent contracts between districts and other public relations consultants.

For example, the Hempstead Union Free School District pays a $60,000 retainer for public relations services from Todd Shapiro Associates, which it hired independently of BOCES.

Christina Symelidis, chief financial officer of Syntax, which was founded in 1999 with a focus on marketing communications for public entities such as school districts, said clients receive value for their expenditures.

“We’re not charging by the hour; we’re working off a retainer, and we don’t go over that,” she said, noting the districts contracted for different levels of service and opted for services from the firm’s media team, art and website departments, and either a visiting or in-district consultant. Most districts, she said, chose the standard service with a Syntax employee who covers several districts.

Symelidis said the company was instrumental in helping districts get information out during the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. “They really relied on having a well-seasoned communications company,” she said.

Tim Hoefer, president of the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, said that if districts determined such services were useful, then hiring an outside consultant might be less costly in the long run than hiring a full-time employee with health and pension benefits.

“I’m sure there are arguments for why they want that” service, he said. “Whether contracting with a PR firm is the cheapest way to do that, I don’t know. I don’t have enough details to know that.”

Ryan Ruf of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Ryan Ruf of Eastern Suffolk BOCES. Credit: Fran Knoedl

Ryan Ruf, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said local school boards determine whether there is a need for a public relations consultant when budgets are put together, and then they sign up with their regional BOCES for services. The contract goes through a competitive bidding process through BOCES, or districts can choose from a list of already qualified vendors.

“We bill them monthly a tenth of the contracted amount agreed on between district and the vendor,” said Ruf, who previously worked as assistant superintendent for business in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district. “The subsequent year is when the state aid goes to the school districts to help offset the cost of the prior year’s expenditure.”

Andrea Vecchio, of East Islip Tax Pac, a taxpayers' group, dismissed the need for communications services for districts as just another added burden on taxpayers.

“We don’t need PR in school districts,” she said. “To pass budgets, we would be much better off if there were no PR and a straight vote put to the people. It’s against the law to promote one side over another in an election.”

Andrea Vecchio, of East Islip Tax Pac, dismissed the need...

Andrea Vecchio, of East Islip Tax Pac, dismissed the need for communications services for districts. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

She added, “It’s all this peripheral stuff where money is lost. If you care to be able to stay in your house and pay less taxes, they do more than they should be doing.”

Districts more reliant on outside firms

But as the means of communicating become more varied, districts are relying more on the outside companies. In Riverhead, the district spent more than $100,000 on the services of two firms in 2021-22 — before shifting its entire account to one of the companies for a cost savings in the coming school year.

Over the last school year, the district paid about $88,000 to Syntax and an additional $16,500 to ZE Creative Services, in part to develop a new, more user-friendly website. In 2022-23, ZE will handle the entire account for an annual cost of $87,615. The district will be reimbursed by the state through BOCES for a portion of the costs in the following year.

Riverhead Superintendent Augustine E. Tornatore said in a statement, provided through ZE, that the district has retained a public information agency for more than a decade. In this new school year, ZE will continue to manage the website, “handle the district’s public information and social media, and produce the district’s newsletters and calendar. The agency will also provide certain on-campus photographic services and work with the superintendent and district officials in any crisis situation that may arise during the course of the year.”

He said the district's contract costs wouldn't approach the up to $120,000 salary, plus medical and retirement benefits, he said he understands other districts pay to an employee to perform those functions. 

A portion of the district's cost is eligible for state aid reimbursement through BOCES, Ruf said. 

"Some districts have a BOCES aid rate as high as 90%, some as low as 36% — the higher rate goes to higher-need districts," he said, adding that need is determined based on property wealth and income wealth in the district. 

"We have what we call a cooperative service, and each are sent to the state Education Department for approval," he said. "They’ll say, 'Yes, we approve this service, we think this service is worthy.' When approved by the state we are able to offer it to our component school districts."

The districts then decide whether to participate in the cooperative service, he said. 

"Each year we definitely add several school districts to this cooperative service," Ruf said. "We may lose one or none, and add one or two. ... It does not have to be outsourced, but if you don’t have that right person on staff, the best option is to outsource it to a firm."

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