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Utica school district taps tax funds to manage online reputation

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Utica Community Schools logo

A simple internet search for "Utica Community Schools" delivers these first results: the district's website, its Twitter account and a Wikipedia entry.

But whether you'll be able to see negative information on the district alongside the good is a matter of debate.

The Macomb County district is paying $2,700 a year to a company called Reputation Defender, which provides individuals and businesses a way to establish "a positive online presence," suppress "negative search results" and manage online reviews, according to the company's website.

Jeannine Somberg, whose son used to attend the district and who has sued UCS over his education, said she wants to know why the district is using tax dollars to alter its online reputation.

"It's intended for people who write bad reviews at a restaurant. It's not intended for what Utica is using it for," Somberg said of the service. "I believe they are using it to suppress anything negative about the school district and what they do. These are public funds."

A company representative from Reputation Defender did not return a call or email inquiring about its business methods, but Utica spokesman Tim McAvoy defended the contract, which he says has been in place for more than four years, as only one part of the district's marketing strategy.

"The intent is to ensure our marketing piece is within the first piece of information," McAvoy said. "We are in competition with other school districts. ... The goal was to ensure we were promoting the district to prospective students and families as we made staff reductions."

Asked whether negative information on the district was being suppressed, McAvoy said the district has asked the company to "ensure our materials are high up. That is the value for us. (To suppress) is not the value for us. That is not why we sought this out."

Utica Community Schools is Michigan's second-largest school district with 27,400 students from across Macomb County and bordering counties. Its general fund budget is $284 million.

Officials with some of Metro Detroit's largest public school districts — Detroit Public Schools Community District, Dearborn Public Schools and Plymouth-Canton Community Schools — all say they do not use reputation management services.

UCS has laid off teachers in recent years as its enrollment declined. In 2013-14, the district had about 28,500 students. The district won't have to lay off teachers this year because of educator retirements, said Liza Parkinson, president of the Utica Education Association.

Still, Parkinson says she resents that money is being spent on an online reputation management service — especially after the last contract had $10 million in savings for the district — and doesn't think it's appropriate.

"I would guess every school district has something negative. ... It gives me a bad feeling when I look at the website. I felt something wasn't right. It feels shady," Parkinson said.

David Mustonen, a spokesman for Dearborn Public Schools, said his district finds value in negative reviews of the schools.

“From our perspective, we gather as much information from the positive comments as we do from negative comments. And those negative comments can help us improve our service, or sometimes they are so wrong or out there that it's important that we address them and provide accurate information," Mustonen said.

"That’s why we need to see all the comments, not just the positive ones."

Darius Fisher, CEO of Status Labs, a digital reputation management firm based in Austin, Texas, said he has never heard of a public school using a company in his field, which typically serves individuals and private companies.

"We typically work with individuals or brands either before or after some crisis to repair their online image," he said.

Fees for reputation management can range from a few thousand dollars a year to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, depending on the clients and his or her needs, Fisher said.

Asked how one can determine if the service actually works, Fisher said "before and after screenshots will determine whether it works or not."

"The industry is definitely growing and services are being adopted by most companies," he said. "Google search is the new first impression. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward in Google."

Somberg, a certified public accountant from Shelby Township, has been in litigation with the district since 2012 over her son's special education services.

Her son attended Eisenhower High School, but she withdrew him in 2014 and placed him into a private school while the case was pending.

She found the contract on the school district's website by reviewing its check register.

"There is no reason the public should look so hard for information on the district. As a parent and a taxpayer, I am watching school spending," Somberg said.

"I can't think of anything of why Reputation Defender would help improve the education outcomes. I can't see it."