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The Utah State Board of Education has agreed to budget nearly $600,000 in unexpended federal mineral lease funds for strategic communications services, an effort Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson calls "important" and "timely."

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education has agreed to budget nearly $600,000 for strategic communications services such as public relations counsel and public opinion polls, an effort Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson calls "important" and "timely."

"We've been kicking this can down the road for several years needing to have some funds to reach out to external sources to help us with marketing and communications. Districts do it all the time and we have just not done that. I think we continue to pay the price for that," Dickson told the State School Board late last week.

The board agreed to budget $596,652.77 in unexpended federal lease funds for an array of strategic communication services to complement the efforts of the board's communication staff.

But some board members balked at the cost.

Board member Linda Hansen said one of the school districts in her school board district is struggling financially while the state board is talking about spending around $500,000 on public relations.

"When we talk about spending a half a million dollars, it gives me pause," Hansen said.

Dickson said she appreciates and agrees with Hansen's concerns.

"Our schools need money and they need more money. This is discretionary money internally so it is not money we could or would push out to schools, but it's money for internal use," Dickson said.

Chief of staff Tiffany Stanley said one goal of the contract communications effort is to roll out the board's strategic plan to the public in 2019 by identifying "key messages that resonate. It's sometimes difficult to do that when you're on the inside, so that outside lens can be really valuable."

Board member Alisa Ellis asked whether the board's finance committee, which sent the proposal to the full board for a vote late last week, had considered other spending options.

"Did you look at any other dollar amount or just this half-million dollar figure and what's the justification for such a large dollar amount versus a lot less?"

Scott Jones, deputy state superintendent of operations, said he believes Stanley did her due diligence to arrive at the near-$600,000 proposal by reviewing communications budgets of other states "and saying 'Hey, this what they're expending on that.'"

Prior to the board's vote, Jones said it could establish a budget of $500,000 "but you don't have to spend it all, especially in the first year when it's kind of difficult to know until you have prior-year expenditures to base your decision-making."

Dickson told the board that Utah's peers in other states "have huge communications staffs."

She added, "You look at our peers at USHE (Utah System of Higher Education) UTech (Utah System of Technical Colleges) and they have large budgets for communication. We have created zero budget for communication."

The proposal also includes contracting with "ethnographic interviewers to highlight school success stories and best practices that reinforce key aspects of the board's strategic plan."

Board member Joel Wright said he largely agreed with Dickson, noting that some of the public relations budget needs to be devoted to a campaign that says "'We're just generally awesome,' and people should know who we are and the governor's not really in charge of public education, and we are,'" he said.

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However, resources also should also be devoted to instances "when we vote for something that's bold or audacious we can get excoriated and just vilified to no end. That's when we need to pull out some guns and fire back," Wright said.

Board member Carol Lear questioned the use of federal mineral lease research and development funds to pay for the board's strategic communications efforts.

"If it's important enough for the board to be doing this we shouldn't be doing it with mineral lease money. We should be building it into our budget with stable funding," Lear said.