FORT WORTH—A mock public relations crisis has exploded into a real, live fiasco for Fort Worth school district officials.
Superintendent Joe Ross fired public relations consultant Linda Pavlik of Pavlik and Associates because of a scenario she developed for a training seminar. In it, staff members were asked to deal with fictional complaints that referred to the district’s two deputy superintendents as a “coconut” and “an Uncle Tom.”
Ross hired Pavlik, a well-known local public relations specialist, to conduct 20 hours of training for himself and other top administrators. In a memo to trustees explaining the Oct. 18 event, Ross said Pavlik was to be paid $7,000 to work on improving “how our staff works with the media.”
Pavlik was conducting a role-playing exercise with staff members, including Deputy Superintendents Pat Linares and Walter Dansby, when she passed out the written scenario. The school officials were asked to pretend that they were dealing with citizens complaining that low school ratings indicated that African-American and Hispanic students were not being taught properly.
“A petition is being circulated demanding that the School Board terminate both Linares and Dansby because of their inability to support minority students across the board and also demanding that the new superintendent be African-American or Hispanic,” Pavlik wrote. “Linares has been labeled a ‘coconut’ and Dansby ‘an Uncle Tom.’ “
The terms are disparaging references to individuals who acquiesce to Anglos, rather than reflecting their racial or ethnic heritage.
Linares is Hispanic and Dansby is African-American.
In the exercise, staff members were supposed to brainstorm ways to deal with the fictional fallout.
“There were some responses,” Dansby said. “Everyone tried to handle it as best they could and be professional at that time. Most were in shock at the scenario.”
It didn’t take long, however, for copies of the scenario to circulate outside of the meeting, and a real-life scandal was born.
“When I saw the scenario, I was embarrassed for those that were named and I was embarrassed for those who had to sit there, so I took action,” Ross said. “I terminated our agreement with Ms. Pavlik.”
Pavlik said she did not mean to offend anyone but said she stands by the scenario.
“I did not use those terms to belittle these individuals,” she said. “I said that this is what is being said in the community in the scenario. And in over 25 years, I have done enough consensus-building and community work in minority communities across North Central Texas, and these terms are used freely.
“African-Americans will call other African-Americans an Uncle Tom, and Hispanics will call other Hispanics a coconut,” she said.
“I apologize to Dr. Linares and Mr. Dansby if, in fact, they took it personally because I meant no personal harm or to single them out,” Pavlik said. “I was confident that the team would be able to take the scenario in the spirit it was offered and come together as a team to support each other.”
Ross said that the scenario was passed out in the last half-hour of a three-hour training session and that he left just a few minutes before the materials were distributed.
He said Pavlik had already done several hours of training with other staff members, including one-on-one sessions with Linares and Chief Financial Officer Jim McCoy.
“Nine and a half hours appears to have been received pretty well by the people who have given me feedback,” Ross said.
Because Pavlik conducted 10 hours of training, she will be paid for half of her contract, or $3,500, Ross said.
Linares said she was offended by the statement Pavlik wrote.
“It was inappropriate,” she said. “But the superintendent is handling it administratively, and I am going to let him.”
Dansby said he is also trusting Ross to handle Pavlik as he sees fit.
“It is certainly inappropriate,” he said, “and I have sort of discussed it with the superintendent, and I have left it up to him to take care of it.”
On Wednesday, Ross said he felt bad about the incident.
“I am hurt because the staff was hurt,” he said. “Part of my job is to protect my staff, and I failed in that responsibility. I didn’t know about it, I should have known about it, but I didn’t, and I take responsibility.”
School board President Bill Koehler called Pavlik’s scenario “absolutely disgusting.”
“It has caused quite of bit of anxiety in the community,” he said. “People who have heard of it or seen it thought it was not a scenario. My understanding is that some thought this really happened and were very upset, and rightfully so.”
The Rev. Michael Bell, who has led protests against the school district, was one outsider who received a copy.
“The district can ill afford to have something as divisive as this circulating,” he said. “This is a volatile issue with the names mentioned, especially with the community looking to Joe Ross and the school board to bring the community together, rather than to be divisive.”
The incident came up at Tuesday’s school board meeting during a scheduled conversation about consultants. Trustee Christene Moss raised concerns about the incident, and Trustee Juan Rangel echoed them. But the matter was tabled because Pavlik’s firing was not on the board’s agenda.
Moss and Rangel declined to discuss the matter after the meeting. On Wednesday, Moss referred questions about the incident to Ross. There was no answer at two of Rangel’s phone numbers, and he did not respond to a message at another.
Pavlik said she was retained around Oct. 1 to expand on training she had done for the district in 1998.
“The emphasis was to be on the media and how to communicate better and more accurately,” she said. “What I was emphasizing in training was that employees should work together as a team so the information disseminated is factual.”
Pavlik crafted scenarios that “would have required internal and external communications,” she said. “There was some indication that media was going to be called in, and there were employment matters in there, too.”
Pavlik said she had never been dismissed from a job before.
“At any time that my services are not being utilized, I think it appropriate for me to go on in a different direction,” she said. “I am hopeful that the board and the school district as well as the African-American community can understand the reasons for the media training and appreciate the training’s value.”