Atlanta school board chief wants $23K for PR

Atlanta school board Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El proposes paying an outside company as much as $23,000 over three months to provide "crisis communications counsel" and help plan community meetings.

The firm, Atlanta-based Alisias Group, has done work for the lawyer who represents El and other board members in defending against a lawsuit that seeks to overturn El's September appointment as board chairman, Alisias President Richard White said.

The additional proposed work for the school board is unrelated, White said. When it would be set in motion is unclear because it has not yet been approved by the board.

The board in the past has used outside firms to help manage its message to the public, including earlier this year when it agreed to pay as much as $29,000 to public relations firm Manning, Selvage & Lee to help in its response to an ongoing investigation of test cheating at 58 city schools.

That contract was handled through the city school system's procurement office, with a formal request for bids. El's request did not go through the procurement office. The system's rules allowed the board office to handle it -- as long as four quotes were received -- because it was under $25,000.

According to documents obtained through Georgia's Open Records Act, El on Oct. 8 requested quotes for a "communications strategy and plan" from firms through the board office. The board office received proposals from seven firms.

Projected costs ranged from $22,000 to $27,000. El himself chose Alisias, although it was not the lowest quote, announcing his choice in a resolution that appeared on the board's online agenda Nov. 1. The board at its meeting that night tabled the resolution, with members who have been at odds with El saying they wanted more information about Alisias and how El made his choice.

White said Tuesday he has not been contacted about whether his firm’s bid was successful. System records show he responded to an e-mail Oct. 28, having received the system’s current crisis communications plan and been told the board office was working to “finalize the necessary paperwork.”

The next day, White attended a hearing in the unrelated lawsuit, which was brought by dissenting school board members. White said he was there at the behest of defense attorney Glenn Delk.

The delay in choosing a communications firm has frustrated El, who in a written response to the board said Monday there was a need for the work: "Public confidence is at an all time low. The Atlanta Public Schools is in the midst of several investigations stemming from allegations of widespread cheating on [state tests]. The board of education has been threatened with the loss of accreditation due to its actions. There currently exists no formalized process to provide the public with unbiased information."

In an interview Tuesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, El said he planned to bring the resolution back to the board in December for approval. He said some of the proposals relied too heavily on the Internet or were too corporate. Alisias, he said, was more “grass-roots” in its approach. The firm has worked previously with the school system, and currently works for the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Although Alisias’ proposal makes no mention of it, the firm employs former Atlanta school board member Norman Johnson, who was forced to resign as board president in 1998 and took early retirement from Georgia Tech because of a travel expense scandal that prompted a state investigation. No charges were ever filed.

Johnson was accused of incurring thousands of dollars in questionable travel expenses reimbursed to him by Georgia Tech and the school system. The scandal prompted Tech and APS to change their travel policies.

White said Johnson does policy work for Alisias and would not be involved in its work with the board.