Gary Schools severs $400,000 contract with social media development firm


Gary Community School Corporation in Indiana has severed ties with a social media company hired to boost outreach and perform website design, according to reports.

The school district had hired Social Media Development Group, LLC, which is based in Gary, using federal funds that are reserved for low-income districts that are struggling financially. The district was to pay just over $400,000 using Title I funds from August 2016 through July 2017, according to the terms of the contract.

But the district’s dire financial straits may have thrown the contract into jeopardy — after voters did not approve a general fund referendum in November. The school system’s financial consultant told the Northwest Indiana Times back in October that if the referendum did not pass, there would be no additional funds allocated from the state. The school district, which is currently about $100 million in debt, would essentially be broke.

The school system’s deep fiscal woes could throw contracts with technology companies or other vendors into turmoil, and the story highlights the risk that technology service providers can sometimes face working with schools facing budget challenges. Gary Schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt confirmed that the contract with Social Media Development Group was terminated, the Chicago Tribune reported.

According to its website, the eponymous social media company “utilizes technology services to assist clients in achieving their marketing goals.” It was established as a limited liability company in 2012.

The plan for the district was to try to increase web traffic, monitor social media engagement for its 13 schools, and use outlets like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other blogging platforms to do targeted outreach.

There was also a stipulation for strategic planning around the district’s website redesign and rebranding, as well as a social outreach plan and communications strategy.

According to the Tribune, last month Gary residents voted down an $8.7 million referendum that requested a 47.5 percent per $100 of assessed value increase. If the district had been able to collect the 75 percent of what would be owed, it would have raised about $8 million more per year, according to school system officials.

But the measure was defeated 50.87 percent to 49.13 percent.

It is not rare for school districts to contract with social media companies for marketing, communications and website design strategies. But some districts also turn to these businesses for other purposes that directly involve students.

A few years ago, a district in Glendale, California hired Geo Listening, which does social network monitoring. The district argued it was for student safety, but the move created an uproar among privacy advocates who decried the infringement on students’ rights, CNN had reported.

Pruitt, the Gary superintendent, denied that Social Media Development Group was hired to increase social media awareness about the vote. She would not comment on what the district’s social media strategy would be moving forward.

People who want to submit upgrade requests on the district’s website are redirected to the social media company’s website, with a message that requests are currently not being fulfilled and redirecting questions to school building administrators.

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