CUSD board member calls $500K for marketing too low

CUSD Community Relations Director Terry Locke and Locke and Digital Marketing Coordinator Sam Incorvaia briefed the Governing Board last month on what’s being done to market the school district to families. (CUSD)

Terry Locke, the Chandler Unified School District’s director of community relations, had just concluded his presentation to the Governing Board on marketing efforts at its April 27 meeting.

The board’s response was not what most people hear after a presentation before the body that controls the finances.

“My question to you is, if you had more money, what would you do with it?” board member Joel Wirth asked. “$500,000 seems incredibly, ridiculously low.”

The stakes are high for the school district. The state bases its funding to districts on enrollment and CUSD is entering a period where officials expect overall enrollment to plateau and then fall.

There are fewer younger families that can afford to live in and near the district. The birth rate is declining and soaring home prices make it unlikely that young families just starting out in life will be able to move into Chandler Unified.

The exact same trend has already hit nearby Tempe Union and Kyrene school districts, where demographers say a 10-year decline in births, coupled with a reluctance by older homeowners to give up their houses, has caused a major enrollment decline.

And the competition from charter and private schools is increasing.

Queen Creek Unified School District doesn’t face an enrollment slide and, in fact, projects just the opposite, And though it has budgeted about $95,000 for its marketing efforts, it’s a pittance in the district’s annual budget of more than $85 million.

Wirth said he checked with his wife, who worked in marketing. She told him that generally, the district should be spending about 2% of its budget on marketing. That would be about $6 million, Wirth said. So he was disappointed the board has only approved $500,000 at this point.

Locke and Digital Marketing Coordinator Sam Incorvaia briefed the Governing Board on past efforts and the plan going forward. It relies heavily on digital ads, mostly on Facebook and Instagram.

They prefer that medium because it gives them the ability to target their audience, families with young children who live close to the district.

To date, they’ve been using the phrase, “Your premier district of choice,” as their advertising slogan.

Board member Lindsay Love asked if that was wise, pointing out “choice” is a political buzzword that might upset some people. Republicans have used “choice” in their efforts to promote charter and private schools – which Democrats say siphons money form public education.

“We have some people who get really excited about school choice, but then we have people who get turned off by it because it kind of signals privatization language,” Love said

Jason Olive said the district needs to do a better job differentiating itself from its competition, saying he had one friend who didn’t know his kids were attending a charter school.

Board President Barb Mozdzen echoed Olive’s concerns, saying she has met quite a few people who think Arizona College Prep is a charter school. It is a district school.

Locke said that other districts are spending more than CUSD, but that they are hiring contractors to do all the work. He said CUSD is saving money by having staff do a lot of the work, leaving them to do more marketing for the money.

Wirth asked Locke to think about it and then tell him what he would do with another $500,000 and then get back to him.

Wirth said he ran for his seat with marketing being his top issue. He said the CUSD was doing no marketing when he started and that he still believes while he was impressed with the presentation, he said the marketing effort is woefully inadequate.

“All school districts are so far behind in telling our story,” Wirth said. “For me, now is not the time to cheat, we need to throw some money at this, because students we bring in are incredibly important to paying teachers, equity program, you name it.

“We start declining, with the exception of teachers, everything else is going to get slashed and burned and cut.”