Ann Baldwin first arrived on scene in Newtown in July when the school district was deep in the throes of the school bus contract debate.
A former Hartford area television news broadcaster who runs a public relations business, Baldwin works for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. She introduced herself during that July meeting to a few reporters as someone whom the district, through its membership in CABE, had asked for help in the field of communications.
"I was brought into the issue but not because of the issue," Baldwin said this week, adding her involvement extended beyond the school contract debate.
Several months after the awarding of the school bus contract, Baldwin remains a consultant for the district, which signed a so-called "letter of agreement" with CABE for her services for one year at $2,000 a month or $24,000 a year, according to officials and Baldwin. Those services can be terminated with a month's notice, she said.
During the school bus controversy, Baldwin helped the district plan a public access television show where Hart, business director Ron Bienkowski, parent Charles Hepp and a moderator talked about the district's school bus contract process – a show that some criticized as being one-sided though officials at the time said they had invited people with differing viewpoints who declined to attend.
Baldwin also helped the district videotape a , the company that ultimately won the contract, and post the video onto the district's website so that people who couldn't attend the presentation could watch it for themselves.
The consultant said she also plans on working with teachers on ways to showcase their work and that of their students to the public, as well as possibly assist high school students with putting on a regular public access television show.
The money to pay for Baldwin comes out of the district's professional services budget, which has been approved for $715,720 this year and could be used to pay for a litany of diverse services, such as out-of-district speech pathologists, if needed; and consultants to help teachers with professional development, the business office with ways to improve the budgeting process and in Baldwin's case, provide communications' advice to the superintendent and others.
Included in that expense category is $163,600 in professional services specially budgeted for the superintendent and central office use, according to the district's budget document.
Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson, who could not be reached for comment because she is traveling out of the country with other school officials, has discretion over what type of professional services that budgeted account can be used to pay, according to district officials.
Board of Education chairman Bill Hart said he was aware of Baldwin's involvement with the district, and understood why Robinson brought the consultant in, particularly because he and others have brought up the issue of better communication with the public.
"I have been pushing for her ever since I've been on the board to do a better job of communicating," he said of Robinson.
Ironically, while Hart and apparently others knew about Baldwin's involvement with the district to help improve communications, that hadn't been communicated to everyone on the education board.
"In 20/20 hindsight, it never hurts to communicate better," Hart said.
Baldwin said she wants to assist with communications in any way she can, a role that in some districts is filled by a full-time person.
"I know the price is very reasonable," she said of CABE's fees. "You're paying for proven expertise and track record and effectiveness."