Image isn’t everything

The Los Angeles Unified School District feels misunderstood. Picked on by journalists who won’t stop reporting on its payroll nightmare. (OK, there are other reasons it feels picked on, but that’s the big one at the moment.)

Since January, thousands of employees have been underpaid or overpaid. The district says those who were overpaid need to return a total of $53 million, but those employees don’t believe the district’s figures and want hard proof before they yield one penny. At the same time, thousands of employees have been underpaid by $7 million. School officials promise to pay them what they’re owed, but many of those employees don’t believe the district either.

So what does the district do to correct the natural perception of its incompetence? Fix the problem? Nope. As first reported by our colleagues at the Daily News, it hires image consultants. It’s paying Victor Abalos, a consultant for Supt. David L. Brewer, $178,000 for one year to restructure the district’s PR department. It’s also paying Michael Bustamante $90,000 for six months to focus on the payroll fiasco, and it has signed up the public relations firm Rogers Group as well. This, the paper reports, is on top of a six-person communications department with a $1.4-million budget. And they expect journalists not to pick on them?

Then again, why shouldn’t the district hire image fixers? That’s what the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did when reporters kept going on and on about its pederasty problem. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony moved swiftly to undo the damage -- to the church’s image -- by hiring the crisis communications firm Sitrick and Co. The J. Paul Getty Trust hired Sitrick too when journalists kept poking into questionable financial practices and the pending trial of an antiquities curator.

Institutions in crisis tend to focus on their image. The trouble with L.A. Unified, however, is substance -- and money spent on burnishing its image is money not spent educating children. That’s not public relations. It’s a public travesty.