State Charter Board Spending Tens of Thousands on Crisis Public Relations

Joseph Flaherty
The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools addresses a Goodyear charter school that closed suddenly at a 2018 board meeting.
The Arizona state board that oversees charter schools is spending nearly $4,000 per month for crisis public relations work by an outside contractor, adding up to more than $50,000 over the past year and a half.

According to public records obtained by Phoenix New Times, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools pays public relations consultant David Leibowitz $3,850 each month for ill-defined media relations work.

The board retained Leibowitz beginning in September 2017, when the board began facing critical media reports of financial self-dealing and mismanagement happening within the Arizona charter sector.

"While I don't speak for the Board, my recollection is that the Board and charter schools generally had become the subject of intense media focus back in 2017, including a significant number of negative stories," Leibowitz wrote in an email.

For his first five months of work starting in fall 2017, Leibowitz was paid $1,650 monthly. His rate increased to $3,850 per month beginning in February 2018, and he remains on contract today. According to invoices and other public documents, the state board has paid Leibowitz at least $54,450.

According to a copy of the agreement between the board and Leibowitz, his services “may include crisis communications, public relations consulting, strategy development, media training,” and other responsibilities.

Charles Tack, the charter board's new executive director, said the board retained Leibowitz because of the increased media and public interest in charter schools.

"As a small agency with limited resources, contracting with a professional like Mr. Leibowitz allows the Board to obtain specialized services at a cost well below that which would be required to compensate a full-time employee with less experience," Tack wrote in an email.

Tack joined the charter board on January 28 after resigning as the Arizona Department of Education's associate superintendent of policy development and government relations. He could not say how often the board relies on Leibowitz for media assistance on an hourly basis each week.

"Mr. Leibowitz remains on call and available whenever his services are required and the frequency with which he is consulted varies with the volume of requests and other needs as they arise," Tack wrote.

In his budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Governor Doug Ducey has proposed boosting the charter board's budget to allow the board to hire new staff members who can better police the charter sector for financial and academic problems.

Ducey, a firm school-choice ally, has nevertheless has pledged to improve charter school accountability during his second term, responding to reports documenting mismanagement and huge executive payouts in the sector. The governor's proposed fiscal year 2020 budget would grant the charter board an additional $786,000 to hire six education project managers, three financial program managers, and one audit program manager.

At the moment, the board has 11 full-time employees, according to Tack, so the governor's new dollars would practically double the board's personnel.

According to Barrett Marson, another local PR consultant, crisis communications is not a form of lying or spinning. Instead, he described it as crafting answers for a client so accurate information is conveyed to the public.

Then again, Marson acknowledged, "They don’t bring in crisis communicators when everything’s okay."

For an entity with a smaller staff that doesn't have media experience in-house, Marson said, it can be helpful to rely on someone from outside who can navigate questions, especially during trying situations. "It’s better to spend that money now when the questions are coming hot and heavy then later, when you’ve maybe already misfired on some answers," Marson said.

But Leibowitz's role at the board is not public-facing. Records requests are usually processed and returned by the charter board's staff. Before Tack took over last month, media questions and responses went through then-executive director Ashley Berg.

"I don't speak for the board," Leibowitz said via phone. "I don't function as a spokesman for the board or for staff; rather, I advise the board and I advise the staff for my consultant's role about how best to answer questions, how best to be as transparent as possible."

In January, New Times reported on internal discussions at the charter board conducted via text messages, which showed board president Kathy Senseman disparaging critics who "hate all charters," discussing board agenda items with an aide to the governor, and receiving advice from Leibowitz.

On the day the charter board was scheduled to consider a lucrative sale of charter schools owned by lawmaker Eddie Farnsworth, Leibowitz texted Senseman and Berg: "Board is going to be crucified if Farnsworth deal gets approved. Just FYI," he wrote.

Later, he told Senseman to say "over and over" that there is no legal rationale to turn down the sale. "Say it when you vote. Say it 3 times when [Republic reporter Craig Harris] interviews you," Leibowitz wrote.

The text messages show both Senseman and Leibowitz swiping at Harris for his reporting – Senseman called him an "egomaniac" and Leibowitz ripped him as "loathed by 100 different communities I can think of, including most of his colleagues." (Senseman told New Times she regretted the remark.) 

Leibowitz is a former columnist for the Arizona Republic who now runs his own PR firm. In addition to his work for the charter board, Leibowitz currently represents Hacienda HealthCare, the Phoenix facility reeling from the revelation that an incapacitated patient was raped and gave birth in December.

When the public trust fund system for elected officials, police, and firefighters faced criticism from municipal officials and legislators in 2017, the agency hired Leibowitz with a $72,000 annual contract, the Republic reported at the time.

Then and now, Leibowitz's argument remains the same: An agency can save money by contracting with someone who does not require full-time pay and benefits.

"Had they gone out and tried to hire somebody with my skill level, I think it would've cost far more," Leibowitz said of his work for the charter board. "And they likely would've been paying that person — they surely would've been paying that person – benefits and a pension."