North Salem Board of Ed considers establishing an official Facebook page

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By Fran Havard and Sarah Gayden

Out of 43 school districts in Westchester County, the North Salem Central School District (NSCSD) is one of five that does not maintain its own Facebook page. If North Salem Board of Education member Brandy Keenan has her way, that will soon change.

During Wednesday evening’s Board of Education meeting, Keenan delivered a presentation that proposed investing in a communications specialist for the 2021 district budget. One of the specialist’s primary responsibilities would be establishing and maintaining a district presence on Facebook. Keenan said the social media presence would create “consistent, streamlined, branded messaging,” that, when used cleverly, “would be an excellent way to highlight the achievements of our district, push out important messages, and gain support and trust from our community through active and transparent communication.”

North Salem schools superintendent Ken Freeston said he was “fully supportive” of the proposal. He noted that the specialist’s cost matched what was discussed as part of last year’s budget but said “we were not able to afford it last year.” The item was cut from last year's budget.

The NSCSD currently only uses Twitter for its social media, maintaining four official district Twitter accounts: @NS_Learns, managed by Freeston; @NS_ Tigers, run by the MS/HS; @PQ_Elementary;and the district-wide @nstigerslibrary.

Evelyn McCormick, founder of Mack Digital Communications, a consulting firm that manages communications for several Westchester school districts, said that social media presence has been essential for school districts and other government agencies since the early 2000s. “Like it or hate it, social media is where your people live,” she said. McCormick likened social media to a tool in a ‘trust toolbox.’ However, she cautioned that it is not a cure-all. “All the communication in the world cannot fix internal dysfunction, personnel problems, or tragedies in a community. I tell superintendents all the time that I can only help them if everyone in the district is behaving.”

Many parents already use Facebook to seek out information about North Salem schools, accessing privately-managed Facebook pages unaffiliated with the NSCSD. Chrissy Bucci and Christie Mierzwa, both North Salem parents, founded a private “Parents of North Salem Schools” Facebook group in August 2018 with the goal of communicating information about North Salem schools in a community-based forum. The group currently has 372 members. Bucci said that parents often use the page to ask questions or advice and, in some instances, to vent. North Salem Moms, another local Facebook group, has over 1,600 members and serves wider community needs beyond just the school district.

Several community members ranging from administrators to students expressed initial support for an official district social media presence. Pequenakonck Elementary School principal Mary Johnson said that she “will support any communication tool that helps get the message of our work out to parents and the community.” North Salem High School senior Krissy Reiss also expressed support for the proposal. “I think a district Facebook page is a great idea. I know many parents use Facebook and it would be easier for the district to communicate with families. I think that it would also be a beneficial tool in increasing communication between the district and the North Salem community.”

For their parts, both Bucci and Mierzwa are also in favor of establishing an official district Facebook presence. “We have a very special school district with dedicated administrators, teachers, and staff, who work really hard to build and deliver curriculum, engage our kids in learning, keep our kids safe, and make sure they have a positive experience at school. I think we have done ourselves a disservice by not shouting that from the rooftops and using social media for the benefit that it can provide,” Mierzwa said. Keenan explained that anything the district decides to move forward with would operate separately from existing private community Facebook groups.

The question, however, is implementation. Keenan is advocating for space in the 2021 budget to hire a dedicated communications specialist. McCormick says that’s essential. “If you're going to handle everything from the top down, meaning only the superintendent and principals, there's a very good chance that the work won't get done because they are generally too busy. If the district has a communications person, that person can do the job and will need to be trusted.” A specialist would be responsible for developing a social media presence across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and for synching those outlets with content from the District’s website.

Keenan worked with Jackie Burton, a communications specialist and founder of Concordant Communications who serves several Westchester school districts, to determine that hiring a specialist would cost the district between $48,000 and $55,000 per year. The District would need to add a line item into the budget for the 2021-22 school year in order to fund the position. Bucci, founder of the Parents of North Salem Schools Facebook group, hopes it will happen. “I think it is imperative that the District create a Facebook page. So many great things about our District could be showcased there.”

Community members who would like to share their opinions on this matter are encouraged to email keenanboe@northsalemschools.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Keenan had worked with Ellen Lane, Communications Director at PNW BOCES, to determine the cost to hire a communications specialist. It should have said that Keenan worked with Jackie Burton, communications specialist and founder of Concordant Communications, to determine this cost. This article has been updated to make that change.

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