Marketers focus on diversity despite lacking diversity within own ranks
By Juan Calvillo
A contract worth more than a million dollars, was awarded by the Los Angeles Community College District to an out of state and mostlywhite firm to market to the district’ssurrounding communities.
Alfredo Gama Salmeron, student trustee member of the board of trustees, said that his job is to be an advocate for students.
He said he does it for studentswho don’t go to meetings and don’thave the information about what theboard of trustees’ jobs entail.
The board of trustees is made up of seven members who decide how LACCD funds will be used.
In early September, a contract tohelp with marketing and advertisingfor the LACCD and its colleges was brought to the board of trustees for approval.
The company that won the contract is Interact Communications. William Boyer, director of communications at the LACCD, said it’s important to understand what the company wastasked to do.
“It’s important to get the terminology correct. They’re notdoing a project per se. They were awarded a contract from the district for being essentially our agency ofrecord to help us with marketing andadvertising,” Boyer said.
He said that the contract is a two- year-long contract, that will focus on LACCD-wide advertising andmore local marketing for specificcolleges.
Salmeron said there has been a drop in African American students and total registrations for incoming students in general.
“In 1995, we had 25% African American students. Now, in 2019, we have less than 10% [African American] students,” Salmeron said.
Salmeron said before the contract was approved, African American community leaders attended meetings to try to explain how they could help.
Salmeron said that for the most part, the leaders were ignored by Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez pointed out during the September board of trustees meeting, that there had been an increase in the African Americnan outreach agreement to a total of $250,000.
The Chancellor’s monthlyreport for November revealed that compared to last year, AB540 student count is 10% lower.
These are a few reasons why amarketing and advertising companyis currently needed by the district.
Interact Communications went to the board of trustees and presented their plan to help the LACCD.
Interact Communications, a Wyoming based company, claims on its website that it is a two-yearcollege expert in both marketing andcommunications.
The company is also mostly made up of white or anglo individuals with a few exceptions.
After the company’s presentation, the board members talked about the diversity issues the company has.
“There was a healthy discussion in public about using Interact, and at the end of the day, the elected boardof trustees voted. You can check tosee online,” Boyer said.
Members of the board of trusteeswere concerned with the lack ofdiversity within the company.
During the discussion, Trustee Gabriel Buelna inquired as to the messaging that would accompany Interact Communications contract and how that would translate to student registration.
Cheryl Broom from Interact Communications said the companywould take three to six months tothoroughly research each collegebefore bringing any kind of proposedcampaign.
Buelna said that during Broom’s explanation he was looking for specific content.
“I was listening to your presentation, and I was reallylooking to be convinced that we are going to get a message that’s worth all the buying. And I’m a little concerned that the buying came
before the messaging,” Buelna said.“I’m getting that this is a genericmodel, that is just being ploppedon the district when we’re unique.”
During the meeting Salmeron also questioned Broom.
He asked how exactly InteractCommunications would be ableto speak to how they would relateto and increase African American enrollment.
Scott J. Svonkin is among themembers of the board of trustees that had reservations about Interact Communications.
He said there were concerns notonly about the lack of diversitywithin Interact Communications, but also about the contract in general.
“Initially the contract was not competitively bid, and my philosophy is that all contracts,like this, should be competitivelybid. The initial contract was given to them, by the district, without acompetitive process,” Svonkin said.
Contract fails to please trustee, creates tension
Svonkin said this creates a situation that when the contract does go through a competitive process, those checking would have knowledge that it was originally given to a competing company by the chancellor, thus, influencing their decision.
Boyer said the trustee was incorrect, and that saying the contract was simply given to Interact Communications was, “False.”
Svonkin said that there are board rules for discretion as it comes to contracts. In chapter seven article one of the board’s rules, it outlines who and when these types of situations merit approval by the board and when they don’t. One of the people who can give out contracts for services, for example, is the chancellor of the LACCD, which currently is Rodriguez.
Valencia Martin-Moffet, director of business services, and James B. Watson, from contracts and purchasing, said, when a contract is brought forth, it usually has a sponsor. Boyer and Rodriguez were among the sponsors for this particular contract. Dr. Robert Miller, vice chancellor of finance and business services, said he believed that Boyer was the executive sponsor and Boyer confirmed.
Watson said sponsors are deemed to be the experts for the contract they are sponsoring. In general, if the total amount of the contract exceeds $90,000, the contract has to be advertised for fulfillment.
During this process, the contract and any competing companies are deliberately checked and compared to find the best to fulfill the contract. Watson said that when taking into account which company the district will choose, it falls to both the most fiscally affordable and/or the most appropriate.
If there was any discussion about the companies in the bidding process for this contract, Miller said it wouldn’t be possible to share that information. “The specifics of what was discussed should not be shared due to the sensitive nature of the procurement process including elements of the law,” Miller said.
Svonkin said that another reason for his concern came from the lack of deliverables that come from the contract. He said he was also concerned with the amount of money that went to the company’s overhead.
“Not enough of the contract went for communicating with the public to recruit students. So a large part of the contract went to the firm’s pocket, versus the work of communicating with the public,” Svonkin said.
He said there are hundreds of local and diverse firms that could have been approached, if the process had been done in a more open and transparent way. Svonkin said there was no good reason for the decision to be made the way it was.
“It was troubling from the beginning. When people award contracts to people they know and have worked with, without a competitive process, that is problematic, when you are talking about tens of thousands of dollars that leads to million dollar contracts with public funds,” Svonkin said.
Boyer said that the competitive process was done and that various companies were involved. “Interact and all of the companies that responded to the publicly posted Request for Proposals were put through a rigorous screening and interview process. The responding companies were judged in part on their prior work and accomplishments as well as concept proposals for helping the District achieve its goals,” Boyer said.
Salmeron and Svonkin said that Rodriguez backed Interact Communications. Rodriguez said it had plans to address its diversity issues.
After the discussion, the board of trustees unanimously approved the contract choosing Interact Communications in early September. Boyer said Interact Communications would work closely with the district and schools to make sure the tone is correct. By October the contract was paid and had gone into effect.
During the October 2 meeting of the board of trustees, the board authorized a contract for no more than $520,000 to Sensis. This was district-wide website redesign services.
Salmeron said the company showed the Cal State Los Angeles college website as proof of its abilities. He said that the website is more in line with advertising the college and its resources. He said that it was not an educational website. Salmeron said that this was another example of how the board was not keeping the students in mind.
At the time of writing, the chancellor and multiple members of the board of trustees did not respond to inquiries into the situation, and all communications were directed to Boyer. Interact Communications referred questions about their intentions and contract to Boyer.