It started with a phone call from a friend. “Did you see the job ad in the paper?” he said.
“What job ad?” I said.
“The city school district is looking for a communications director. You’d be perfect.”
“Do you hate me or something?” I said.
The city school district was indeed looking for a communications director. The district was in organizational chaos. A reform school board had brought in a management consultant firm from New York to reorganize the district. Schools had been closed. Central office staff had been laid off – some 800 people. Management of cafeterias, school buses, and other services was being outsourced. The management firm was doing what had to be done, but the district was so strangled by its own politics and so intertwined with city politics that it was impossible to try to make the changes from within.
To give some scope to the problem: the district was staffed and resourced for 100,000 students. Officially, something slightly less than 40,000 attended. The real number was closer to 30,000. The day the management firm arrived, it was learned that the district was so in spending deficit that bankruptcy might be required.
And this was the organization I would be perfect for? Not to mention the ongoing issues, problems, and violence associated with virtually all urban school districts?
I ended up applying for the job. I ended up getting the job. It was the best job I’d ever had. It was also the worst. I was living the opening of A Tale of Two Cities.
It was performance poetry. It was improv poetry. It was epic and it was free verse. Everyone knew exactly how communications had to be run.
I received daily phone calls from the mayor’s office, giving me instructions on what I was supposed to do each day. I ignored them, every single time.
I learned about police radios and how the news media used them to track district news, like when a school board member threw a pitcher of water on a district official because she had seen The Wizard of Oz and knew that water melted witches.
School board members leaked each other’s emails.
My budget – which the previous year had been $1 million with a staff of 12 – had been cut to $20,000 and a staff of 1/2, and the budget had already been spent before I arrived. I had to invent communications out of whole cloth, with no money.
There was never a work day without multiple crises. The work followed me home at night and on weekends – I once did a television interview on a Saturday outside the car dealership where my car was being serviced. I did another one in my family room. I did interviews at schools, meetings, on sidewalks, at lunches, in hallways. I was on television so much that a crazy anomaly developed: an aging, white male Baby Boomer became the public face of an urban school district.
I was there almost nine months, the most tumultuous nine months of the district’s history, my career, and even my own life. I left because I could sense I was burning out; no one could handle communications in constant chaos.
I did get to see and experience the best and worst of human behavior – and sometimes from the same people. I was personally tested for what I could handle, and I knew I had not been found wanting. I loved and hated that job, and I would never do it again. But I was thankful that I’d done it.
From Poetry at Work:
First day on the job
It’s only 9 a.m.
Channel 5 is waiting, cameras
filming in expectation
of a statement, any statement,
it doesn’t matter what it says;
school board members
are leaking emails on each other,
the teacher on the phone
is correcting my pronunciation;
the newspaper uses police radios
to follow the school district news
while the consultant is calling
about “a better brand for the schools”;
the parents protest is scheduled
for 5:30; the mayor’s office
is sending PR instructions
and I’m told the teachers have
a sick-out today because they
can’t bank sick days anymore
and it’s only 9 a.m. and
my first day on the job. I’m
going to love this place.
Top photograph by Mesh via Unsplash. Used with permission.