Updated Sept. 21 at 4:53 p.m.
On Ben White Boulevard near Manchaca Road, a billboard for Austin ISD reads: “Come for the weird. Stay for the smart.” Its I-35 counterpart reads: “Austin. Known for skinny jeans and smarty pants.”
The two billboards, along with various other advertisements and materials, are all part of an extensive micro- and macro-targeting campaign started by AISD in January as part of an investment of about $800,000 to retain students and boost enrollment. AISD has been losing students to charter schools and because of the increased cost of living in Austin, according to multiple AISD trustees.[totalpoll id="186515"]
As the campaign nears its one-year anniversary and the 2016-17 school year ramps up, questions remain as to whether the extensive advertising was a good investment and if trustees will continue to invest in it.
In December, the board of trustees authorized a $350,000 contract with Sanders\Wingo Advertising Inc. to create a campaign with the district’s Communications and Community Engagement Department from January to the end of 2016. The firm was paid about $52,000 for its services and the remaining amount was allocated for a media buying budget, according to AISD. The board can renew the contract with the firm on a year-by-year basis for up to four years, according to the contract. Funds for the second year of the marketing plan were already included in the 2016-17 budget, which trustees approved earlier this year.
The district’s goals of the campaign include retaining students, increasing student enrollment and changing the underperforming perception of East Austin AISD schools.
One of the campaign’s primary metrics for its effectiveness, the 2016-17 school year enrollment, has yet to be determined because AISD waits until six weeks after the school year begins to tally enrollment. Telles said the first few weeks of school have volatile enrollment counts because students may transfer to a new school or leave the district entirely.
Based on preliminary data unreleased to the public, trustee Gina Hinojosa said enrollment for the first week of school, which was from Aug. 22-26, increased for middle schools and high schools compared with the 2015-16 school year.
Spending money to make money
From the start of the program in January to the start of the 2016-17 school year on Aug. 22, AISD has spent about $850,000 for its marketing campaign, which includes the $350,000 just for hiring Sanders\Wingo, according to AISD.
Reyne Telles, AISD Communications and Community Engagement executive director, said AISD potentially lost almost $8.87 million in state funding because of a 1,200-student decline in enrollment from the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year.
“You take the $800,000 of that
$8.87 million, which is roughly what we’ve spent for the marketing–you’re still just trying to battle what you’re losing in enrollment,” Telles said. “It just makes financial sense. If you can get back just half of those students, you’re looking at $4 million gained from the $800,000 that you spent.”
According to the AISD fiscal year 2016-17 budget, AISD has allocated about $1.07 million for the Communications and Community Engagement Department’s contracted services. The department’s total budget is $2.77 million.
Austin ISD staff, using criteria such as low enrollment, determined 30 schools in Austin that should receive specialized, targeted marketing to recruit and retain students using brochures, door hangers, reusable bags, yard signs and other materials. The majority of the schools selected are located in East Austin.[/caption]
Effects of the campaign
The targeted campaign focused on South Austin schools, such as Crockett High School and Kocurek Elementary School, as well as various Northeast and East Austin schools. Telles said the majority of the targeted schools were in East Austin, with some schools north and south of the area.
In addition, general advertisements appeared online and in local media outlets. These ads were more generally focused at the Austin population as a whole to spread brand awareness of the district, Telles said.
Several trustees, including trustee Yasmin Wagner, whose district represents parts of Southwest Austin, refrained from commenting about the marketing campaign and whether it should be renewed until after 2016-17 school year enrollment data is recorded.
“There will be more data than just enrollment,” Wagner said. “There should be measures around sentiment, reach and how much more people became aware of AISD and its services. There’s still a lot of data that [trustees] need to see before we make a fair assessment of its performance.”
Trustee Paul Saldaña, representing parts of South Austin, said the board may discuss how the campaign performed in a mid-October board meeting.
When asked how parents have responded to the campaign, Saldaña said it has been “mostly positive,” as families were active on social media with selfie photos with the marketing signs.
In contrast, parent DeeDee Green, president of the Gorzycki Middle School Parent Teacher Association in Southwest Austin, said the campaign was not an effective use of AISD funds.
“If the large amount of money spent was directed towards campus infrastructure updates and supporting the teachers instead of marketing campaigns, we would not be needing to utilize funds towards enrollment,” Green said. “It seems that most community members leaving AISD to enroll in charter or private schools are doing so because of overcrowding.”
Andy Bruchey, owner of Austin Fitness Center in Southwest Austin, said he is conflicted with the marketing campaign. He said he understands the financial impact of underenrollment on schools but questions the decision-making when it comes to spending taxpayer funds.
“If you look at where [taxes] go on a local, state or federal level, I don’t think [a taxpayer] has any say-so,” Bruchey said. “[Taxing entities] are just going to say, ‘This is what needs to be done.’”
If the campaign struck a wrong chord with Austinites, Telles said AISD would have heard about it because Austin is not shy about sharing its opinions.
Marketing efforts by charter schools have been one of the motivating factors for AISD’s campaign.
“[Charter schools] do a good job at perpetuating the notion that [they are] exclusive,” Telles said.
Saldaña said charter schools have been aggressive, using tactics such as handing out advertisements to students and parents at AISD bus stops.
“I’ve been supportive of moving forward with an aggressive marketing plan for several reasons,” Saldaña said.
Saldaña said more work needs to be done to promote programs that already exist in South Austin schools as trustees contemplate building a new magnet high school. He said he also hopes the storytelling is no longer defensive, or reactionary, to the decline in enrollment or the marketing of charter schools.
Saldaña, referring to Austin’s affordability issues causing families to move out and the rising cost of health insurance, said it will take more than just marketing to address enrollment.
David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said marketing efforts at charter schools vary from school to school.
One reason is that the larger charter school networks may conduct extensive marketing, such as billboards, whereas most other schools may just rely on word-of-mouth marketing, Dunn said.
A charter school can also market beyond its geographical location, Dunn said. A parent can bring his or her child to a charter school near his or her workplace instead of enrolling at the neighborhood school.
“But clearly, the results are different because while AISD is experiencing a decline in enrollment, charter schools here in Austin have grown significantly, and there are waiting lists to get into a charter school,” Dunn said. “I think the dynamics are different.”
Although larger-network charter schools may have the clout to market, small and independent charter schools rely on word-of-mouth marketing, said Ted Graf, head of school for local private school Headwaters School.
At IDEA Public School Bluff Springs, which started its first day of school in Southeast Austin on Aug. 15, marketing for the Texas-wide charter school organization is split between large billboard campaigns for the entire organization and grass-roots marketing for each individual school, Assistant Principal Sameer Bhuchar said.
“The thing that does the most marketing for us is parents who talk to parents,” Bhuchar said.