Lincoln pays $25,000 to be named one of the top school districts in Michigan
The banner ad across the Lincoln school district’s website proudly proclaims it has been recognized as one of the best school districts in Michigan.
The criteria for Lincoln and eight other districts being selected?
A $25,000 check.
Nine southeast Michigan school districts paid $25,000 each to a Detroit-area public relations firm to be “named,” a top school district. That firm, in turn, bought airtime on a Detroit-area television station to broadcast a feature on the state’s best schools. A website - bestschoolsinmichigan.com - also features the nine schools.
Mentioned nowhere on the videos or the website is the fact that the districts paid for the honor.
Representatives from the public relations company, Sussman Sikes, did not return multiple messages from AnnArbor.com over the past week. It’s unclear exactly when the program first aired, but it has been featured more than once on WXYZ Channel 7.
A number of other school districts across the region, including Ann Arbor, were approached about paying to be part of the program. Ann Arbor was approached twice, including about a month ago, said Liz Margolis, Ann Arbor’s director of communications.
“Their pitch was that they would love Ann Arbor to be part of a half-hour show, and that they would showcase whatever we wanted showcased in exchange for a fee,” Margolis said. “I couldn’t justify it in my budget, but I also felt it bordered on the line morally and ethically (because there was no selection criteria).
“As long as we were willing to pay the freight, we would be selected as one of the best schools in Michigan.”
Lincoln Superintendent Lynn Cleary sees it differently.
“Unfortunately, with printed media becoming scarce within our county, we were looking for creative ways to reach a larger audience and felt this was a great way to acknowledge what we are doing well and to highlight our strong academics,” she said. “We were involved in the process of selecting what we were highlighting from start to finish. We actually received all of the filming tapes so we will be able to produce individual DVDs for new families moving into the area, and we will be able to provide links for each building to use on their individual website.”
The video highlights Lincoln’s multiage program, its engineering program and the Early College Alliance that involves Lincoln and other local districts. The video does not mention the ECA also is being run by those other districts.
Narrated by former Detroit-area television reporter Lila Lazarus, the video says Lincoln “has something special to offer every student.”
As a schools of choice district, Lincoln accepts students who don’t live in its attendance boundaries. Under the state’s current school funding plan, each student is worth $7,300 to the district.
Lincoln has a marketing budget of about $30,000 a year, but most years it doesn’t spend it all, Cleary said.
Dearborn Communications Coordinator David Mustonen said the money a district gains from increasing enrollment makes the investment worth it. Dearborn is one of the nine districts highlighted in the program.
“We had a new program starting in the fall of 2009 (district-wide all day kindergarten), and we felt that this was a good opportunity to get the word out,” Mustonen said.
“We felt the cost of the program was reasonable for what we received, and if we attracted three new students, the cost was covered. Our district did have a 350-student increase this year. We have no way of knowing how many of those students, if any, are a result of the program, but you never know. The show did get very good ratings the night it aired.”
The Lincoln school district has 4,764 students enrolled this year, a loss of 27 students from the previous year.
Lincoln parent Scott Wright said he was surprised to hear the district paid for its spot.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talking about it,” said Wright, the parent of two students in the district. “I haven’t heard anyone mention that the district paid for it. It seems like there should be some sort of disclaimer or something.”
The banner ad on Lincoln’s website links directly to the Best Schools in Michigan website and does not contain a disclaimer.
The Best Schools in Michigan website has basic facts about each district, features on various programs, pictures of happy students, a map and enrollment forms. It does not have a disclaimer saying districts paid to be on the site.
“I'm not sure if they have a disclaimer or not,” Cleary said. “Our board of education was fully aware of this, and we actually held a viewing of the program during a community forum.”
Mustonen said his district didn’t have a problem paying for the mention.
“We did pay to be part of the show. The cost was $25,000,” he said. “We were upfront with our staff and community and explained that we were paying to be on the program.”
Margolis said even if Ann Arbor’s marketing budget had room for a $25,000 payment, she’d still have qualms about it because of the lack of a disclaimer.
“I certainly believe that Ann Arbor is one of the best school district in Michigan,” she said. “I’m not criticizing school districts that spent money to do it. But with the state of school funding today, its tough for me to justify it.
“It’s not on our radar. I just felt it was disengious to call these the best schools in Michigan and not note it was because they paid for it.”
David Jesse covers K-12 education for AnnArbor.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 734-623-2534.