Michelle Baumstark, Community Relations Director, Columbia Public Schools
1. What’s your background?
I’ve been the director of community relations for Columbia Public Schools since 2005. I manage the communications, public relations, and community engagement strategies for the school district. From 1999 to 2005, I worked at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Prior to that, I was a newspaper reporter. I’m a proud graduate of MU’s School of Journalism.
2. What’s it like keeping Dr. Peter Stiepleman going at full speed?
Dr. Stiepleman and I joke about our working style quite often. We’ve worked together for a number of years, including some time prior to his role as superintendent. He knows I won’t shy away from difficult situations — he teases that he can hear my voice reacting to something he’s thinking, saying, or doing often before it happens. But I think we both agree that it’s important for there to be that level of understanding and respect for each other to keep things moving at the pace necessary to operate Missouri’s fifth largest school district.
3. What does your typical day look like?
No one day is like another. I may have a day packed with meetings, project deadlines, and media interviews only to have that change by a crisis or safety issue impacting a school or the district. My office is responsible for a number of things outside of what the public may see with regard to media relations, including implementation of all areas of the district’s communications plan, crisis management, the district volunteer program, Partners In Education, CPS-TV (our cable-access channel), special events, and representing the school district on community boards and commissions.
4. What drew you to your position?
It allows me to blend the only two things I ever wanted to be when I was little: a teacher and a reporter. It’s the best of both worlds to do public relations in the field of education. I still use all the skills I learned in journalism school, but I get to do it in an environment that embraces helping others work and learn how to be their best every day.
5. What don’t people know about working in education that they should?
It’s one of the only fields where you can see the impact of your efforts blossom over time and you can take pride in the success of others. From the perspective of a school communications professional, working in education is about developing and investing in an effective public relations program that promotes planned, ongoing, two-way communication between the school and its community. This is key to building an honest relationship between the school district and its stakeholders, resulting in better educational programs and experiences for all of our learners.
6. What would people be surprised to know about your job?
The spokesperson part is probably the smallest portion of my overall responsibilities. In this job, you have to have really thick skin and be able to take criticism well. I find that criticism often comes from a good, well-intentioned placed even when it’s angry, passionate, and emotional. You have to have the mindset that it’s not personal; it’s about doing what’s right for kids.
7. What are some challenges you face in your job?
The biggest challenge is technology. This is an area that has changed quite a lot over the last decade. We live in a world of instant, 24/7 access to information. That creates expectations that can be difficult to live up to. As a district, we’ve worked to implement technology and strategies to help improve not only the frequency of communication, but also the speed with which it’s delivered. School communicators have to manage the flow of information on all fronts, including being able to handle the news media asking about incidents (true or rumored) texted from student cell phones or posted on social media, as well as the normal day-to-day of communications.
8. Describe a success you’re most proud of:
I’m proud of the work our district has done to complete a 10-year long-range facility and bond plan to build and open multiple schools to address growth. I’m also proud of our continued focus on achievement, enrichment, and opportunities for our students.
9. What inspires you to get up each day and make a difference?
I’m inspired by what I see on a daily basis in our schools. We have an amazing school district. You may not realize just how special our schools are until you experience education elsewhere. Columbia is a pretty great place. The support and belief our community has in our schools is something that the school district values. We continue to get up and go to work every day to maintain the trust that has been instilled in us and to make sure that we are providing the best possible learning experiences for all of our students and families.
10. Tell us something about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume.
I left the Washington, D.C., area to become a Midwesterner when I enrolled at MU. I fell in love with Columbia, met my future husband at a Mizzou football game, and never left. Now I just try to convince the rest of my east coast family to move to Missouri. My count is up to six so far.