The School District of Lee County is paying hundreds of thousands of taxpayers dollars to a marketing firm, while allegedly instructing communications staff to do similar work.
The work involved monitoring media coverage about the district, but some believe any in-house work may have gone too far.
A records request revealed the district paid an average of $176,000 a year to a marketing firm, and the top service provided includes “Media Monitoring.”
But there’s an active investigation into claims the district communications office required staff to do the same thing, plus, take their search a step further.
A whistleblower complaint filed in February claims communications staff was instructed to “spy” on Facebook posts and comments about the district while on the clock, potentially being paid taxpayer dollars to use taxpayer resources to spy on taxpayers.
School board member Gwyn Gittens says she’s relieved to learn the district is looking into the claims. “It’s being investigated now, which I’m very glad to hear. You can kinda have your thoughts and feelings but when actual facts come forward, I’m very happy to see that it’s being looked into.”
The School District of Lee County Director of Strategic Communications, Irma Lancaster, has been open about the marketing firm’s media monitoring.
She said, “The top three services that we’ve used in communications has been media monitoring.” And it hasn’t come cheap.
According to financial records, the district has spent more than $529,000 since 2019, with 2021 as the most expensive year at more than $193,000.
Gittens says board members often get media reports sent to them from district staff, but it’s unclear who is compiling the information.
“I’m not ever sure what part is written by staff,” Gittens explained. “I have said and felt that as sensitive as communications is, sometimes maybe we need to mix it up a little bit.”
The whistleblower complaint alleges district employees were required to monitor media articles online and then send the article, along with public comments, to higher-level communications staff.
WINK News obtained hundreds of comments that seem to have been watched and saved by the district, despite Lancaster’s public denial that it was happening.
During a school board meeting, board member Betsy Vaughn said, “It’s somebody in-house that would be doing that?” and Lancaster responded, “I’m not aware of anyone in-house professionally that would be doing that.”
When the district’s investigation is complete, Gittens hopes they will put forth unified messaging on all platforms. “We have to be extremely careful about what we put in those venues because that’s all they know about us.”
Gittens knows most people can’t attend or watch every school board meeting, and she wants the district and parents to be able to connect better moving forward.
WINK News has asked the communications office for updates and asked why this information was kept, with the most recent request being the date of publishing this article.
They say they can’t provide any comment because of the active investigation.