Archive | January, 2019

Texas Public Schools in Portfolio District Crosshairs

26 Jan

Radical market theorists are reshaping Texas education governance by instituting the portfolio district school model. It is a scheme promoted by the University of Washington based think tank, Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). To advance this design, the accountability system and justifications for closing public schools is adopted from Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Public Schools. This top down plan is being guided by Mike Morath Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

A quick glance at the CRPE web site reveals they see Texas as a target of opportunity. It states,

“We’re currently working on:

“…

“Analyzing how state education agencies can support local leaders on the portfolio strategy, such as through the Texas Education Agency’s new System of Great Schools Network.”

A few of the benefits that TEA claims for the System of Great Schools (SGS):

  • “Membership in a professional learning community of superintendents and senior staff that come together regularly to build understanding of the SGS strategy, …”
  • “Regular connection points with Commissioner Morath.”
  • “The district increases access to school choice options and helps families identify and attend their best-fit school.”

TEA’s SGS web site offers a complex excel file with a roadmap for implementing SGS strategies.

sgs implementation road map

Image of SGS Roadmap Excel Page Labeled “Top 12 Deliverables”

The “School Performance Framework” hyperlink in the Excel sheet opens Chicago Public School’s “School Quality Ratings Policy (SQRP) Handbook.” Much of the “objective” justification used for closing 50 Chicago schools in one year is in the handbook. Those 50 schools were almost all in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and employed mostly African-American teachers.

Enacting Unproven Agendas like this is not Conservative

On January 20, 2015 Republican Greg Abbott became the 48th Governor of Texas. One of his early decisions was to appoint Mike Morath Commissioner of Education. The very conservative Donna Garner – a Trump supporting retired school teacher and education policy commentator for Education View – was not impressed. She wrote,

“As a conservative, I appreciate Gov. Greg Abbott for the many courageous positions he has taken for Texas; but he really missed it on this one!

“I cannot think of very many people whom Gov. Greg Abbott could have appointed who would have been a worse choice than Mike Morath as Texas Commissioner of Education.”

mike_morath

Mike Morath from his TEA Biography Page

Morath’s appointment continues a more than a decade long period of Texas Education Commissioners lacking proven education training or experience. His education background consists of serving four years as a Trustee for the Dallas Independent School District and teaching an advanced computer science class at his high school alma mater after the previous teacher resigned suddenly. He completed the year.

Morath has referred to himself as a “super-nerd.” In 2015, the Dallas News stated, “Morath, 38, is a numbers whiz who excelled academically, earning his business degree in 2 1/2 years at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.”

Morath started a company that developed a management information system that streamlined federal food programs for low-income families. At age 36, he made enough money selling the company to semi-retire. Dallas Magazine shared,

“His next goal: searching for his special purpose. An evangelical Christian, Morath believed God would lead the way to this discovery.”

The same Dallas Magazine article also reported that his fellow Dallas Trustees found him “an arrogant wonk who won’t listen to others.” They were especially alienated when Morath tried to privatize the entire district using an obscure never used 1995 Texas law authorizing Home Rule Charters. The Texas Observer reported,

“The idea came from Mike Morath, a Dallas ISD trustee since 2011, when he ran unopposed for an open seat. He’s part of the new generation on the school board, an entrepreneur and policy wonk backed by the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Educate Dallas PAC.

“Morath tells the Observer he spotted an off-hand mention of home-rule charters in a news story about another Texas city….  

“Drafting a home-rule charter, he figured, could be just the thing to give Dallas ISD the freedom it needs to make real changes. Morath shared the idea with a handful of local lawyers and businessfolk, and they in turn founded Support Our Public Schools.”

There were several big dollar contributors for Support Our Public Schools which is a 501 C4 organization meaning it is not tax exempt because its main purpose is to promote a political agenda. Only Houston billionaire John Arnold openly admitted giving large sums to the group.

Garner made an interesting observation in her piece denouncing Morath’s appointment. She defined two types of schools:

  • Type 1 Education: More than a century of children educated in democratically run public schools by certificated teachers. They used technology like Big Chief Tablets and pencils to learn reading, writing, mathematics, science, and civics. They participated in physical exercise and team sports. They attended the school in their neighborhood which likely had several generations of history. “Americans became the leaders of the world because of the many scientists, inventors, technicians, entrepreneurs, engineers, writers, historians, and businessmen who used their Type #1 education to elevate themselves to great heights.
  • Type 2 Education: A philosophy of education that opens the door to subjective, digitized curriculum and assessments found in Common Core the Bill Gates financed national education standards pushed by the Obama administration and CSCOPE the Texas attempt to impose standards based scripted lessons on all teachers and schools. It is the same “innovative” school model pushed by the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators; their 21st century transformational “visioning” approach to education. An approach that embraces the technology industry’s future ready agenda which supports greedy consultants, lobbyists, and vendors who make a fortune off education’s “Golden Goose” of public dollars.

future-ready-pledge

Promotion for the Future Ready Pledge by the Office of Education Technology

Garner’s article about Mike Morath’s appointment concluded,

“Mike Morath is not the right person for the Texas Commissioner of Education. He will not support whole-heartedly the Type #1 curriculum standards that the elected members of the Texas State Board of Education have worked so hard to adopt.  Morath’s philosophy of education is very closely attuned to that of the Obama administration’s Type #2 Common Core.  I am terribly disappointed in Gov. Abbott’s choice of Mike Morath as the Texas Commissioner of Education.”

Test to Privatize

Standardized-testing is NOT capable of measuring either school or teacher quality. The only strong statistical correlation related to standardized-testing is family wealth. In a paper on the limitations of standardized-testing the non-profit organization FairTest wrote,

“Test validity, experts explain, resides in the inferences drawn from assessment results and the consequences of their uses. Relying solely on scores from one test to determine success or progress in broad areas such as reading or math is likely to lead to incorrect inferences and then to actions that are ineffective or even harmful. For these and other reasons, the standards of the testing profession call for using multiple measures for informing major decisions – as does the ESEA legislation.” (Emphasis Added)

It is not an accident that 100% of schools designated as failures and slated for intervention are in poor communities. Likewise, it is not surprising that there has never been a school in a middle class community designated for closure or other interventions. It is only the schools in poor and almost exclusively minority communities that are slated for state intervention in Texas.

To evaluate a school, information about the accreditation of its teachers and their years of experience would be meaningful. As would information about class sizes, art programs, music programs and physical training. A review of the condition of the facilities would also make sense. Surveying students, teachers and parents would yield actionable information. Evaluating schools on the basis of standardized-testing is indefensible.

In 2012, TEA promulgated a rule that required any school designated a failure five years in a row based on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STARR) testing must undergo state intervention. In 2018, the first 52-schools that require intervention appeared on the states to-do-list.

An example of the interventions to expect comes from San Antonio. The Rivard Report shared,

“One of the schools that received an “improvement required” was Ogden Elementary in SAISD, which now has received a failing grade for five consecutive years. However, because of a partnership SAISD leveraged with Relay Graduate School of Education, state law permits Ogden reprieve from accountability consequences for an additional two years.”

Relay Graduate School of Education is a fraudulent school started by the charter school industry. In 2015, Seton Hall’s Danial Katz described the school for Huffington Post:

“For those who are unfamiliar, Relay “Graduate School of Education” was singled out as an innovator by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last November, but it is a “Graduate School of Education” that has not a single professor or doctoral level instructor or researcher affiliated with it. In essence, it is a partnership of charter school chains Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, and it is housed in the Uncommon Schools affiliated North Star Academy. Relay’s “curriculum” mostly consists of taking the non-certified faculty of the charter schools, giving them computer-delivered modules on classroom management (and distributing copies of Teach Like a Champion), and placing them under the auspices of the “no excuses” brand of charter school operation and teachers who already have experience with it.”

The San Antonio Relay Graduate School is led by Dean Annie Hoffman. Prior to joining Relay, Hoffman completed her Masters of Education in Language and Literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She began her teaching career at Sherman Elementary in the Houston Independent School District.

Down the road in Houston, people are fighting mad about the threat to turn 10 schools over to a charter management organization to avoid state sanctions. Last spring, the Chronicle reported,

“HISD administrators sought to stave off potential sanctions by giving control over the 10 schools to a charter school operator, Energized For STEM Academy Inc., but district leaders retreated from that recommendation Wednesday. Their decision came less than 24 hours after a raucous school board meeting ended with two arrests and about 100 members of the public, nearly all of whom opposed the charter proposal, temporarily forced out of the administration building.”

“Had HISD trustees voted to surrender control over the schools, all of which serve predominately black and Hispanic student populations in high-poverty neighborhoods, the district could have received a two-year reprieve from any state sanctions.”

Six of the schools with a long track record of low tests scores were able to meet the required standards to have the threat removed. However, four schools still need to score well to ensure the district is not taken over by Mike Morath’s TEA. January 3rd, Governor Abbott tweeted,

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster. Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

Charles Kuffner weighed in at Off the Kuff. He speculated,

“It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. … That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

Bigger Money is Driving the Portfolio School District Model

In July of 2018, former Enron trader, John Arnold, joined forces with San Francisco billionaire and Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings. They each pledged $100,000,000 to a new non-profit dedicated to selling the portfolio model of school governance. They call it City Fund. Gates and Dell have also contributed to City Fund.

William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner, University of Colorado Boulder wrote a short paper “The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance.” Their basic definition explains,

“Generally speaking, four reform strategies are combined, in varying degrees, in portfolio districts:  (1) performance-based (generally test-based) accountability, (2) school-level de-centralization of management, (3) the reconstitution or closing of “failing” schools, and (4) the expansion of choice, primarily through charter schools.”

The portfolio model promotes disruption as a virtue and posits no value for stable neighborhood schools. As schools are closed or reconstituted, the new schools are not democratically controlled. For example, the portfolio district in Denver, Colorado has 204 schools but 108 of them are no longer governed by the school board. They are governed either by private charter school companies or non-profit organizations.

texas portfolio model map

Map from the Texas Systems of Great Schools Web Site

Concluding Observations

In 2016, the highest paid Superintendent of Schools in Texas was Mark Henry from the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. He received $383,402 to administer a 116,000 student district. At the IDEA charter school chain which has less than 36,000 students, that same year CEO Tom Torkelson made $513,970 and CFO, Wyatt Truscheit received $435,976. Plus, President JoAnn Gama took in $354,484 which is more than all but three public school superintendents in the state of Texas.

It is clear why charter school executives are for them, but data says charters do no better than public schools and are creating havoc with the public education system.

It is not just conservatives who are having issues with privatizing the public education system. Three Democratic Texas legislators, Gina Hinojosa, Mary González and Shawn Thierry reported,

“When charters cherry-pick students, neighborhood schools are left to educate a disproportionate percentage of more challenging children. Neighborhood schools are required by law to enroll all kids, regardless of disciplinary history, special needs or family challenges. Educating children who face more challenges in life is more expensive; the cost falls disproportionately on local public school districts.

“Yet, charters receive more funding from the state per student than 95 percent of all students in Texas. In El Paso, charters receive $1,619 more per student than El Paso ISD. In Austin, charters receive $1,740 more per student than AISD. This funding disparity holds true for many of the largest school districts.

“This lopsided funding model results in increasing funding for charter schools and decreasing it for traditional public schools. In the 2018-2019 biennium, charter schools received $1.46 billion more than the prior biennium, and traditional public schools received $2.68 billion less.

“Ultimately, this parallel system of exclusive schools, funded with increasingly more public money, is often a false promise that results in less access and less funding for many of our kids.”

Denver’s Portfolio Model School District Is a Failure!

19 Jan

Here is a predictable outcome from the portfolio district. On Jan. 18, 2019, a press release from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) says,

After ten hours of negotiations today, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools were unable to reach an agreement on a fair compensation system for 5,700 teachers and special service providers. DCTA members will vote Saturday and Tuesday on whether or not to strike.

The portfolio model which promotes disruption as a virtue is anti-union. It is not conducive to stable harmonious relations with either labor or communities and it is anti-democratic. Denver is held up as an exemplar of school reform; however the outcomes look more like a warning. Increasing achievement gaps; a bloating administration; significantly increasing segregation; ending stable community schools; and stripping citizens of their democratic rights are among the many jarring results.

Former Denver School Board Director, Jeanne Kaplan, wrote extensively about an article in EducationNext championing school reforms in Denver. It was based on a podcast by the guru of school reform and privatization in the Clinton administration, David Osborne. Kaplan noted,

“2009 was … the first time outside money appeared in [School] Board Election campaigns. Stand for Children came with the goal of making the board “more reform oriented”… In spite of their $30,000 expenditure per candidate – which at the time was unheard of – our side, as Osborne notes, won the election. Each following election more and more reform money … appeared …. In addition to Stand, Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and wealthy local businessmen, both Democrats and Republicans, … put enormous amounts of money and human capital to be sure … a unanimous board was achieved. Much of the money while identified by independent expenditure committee remains hidden as to who is making the individual contributions. In 2011 the people were able to hold on to a “mighty minority” of three: 4-3. In 2013 the minority dwindled to one: 6-1. In 2015 the Board was unanimously “reform”: 7-0.

This has become a central thesis of the portfolio model strategy. A Chalkbeat article quotes Ethan Gray of Education Cities on the strategy. Gray who recently went to work at the new City Fund which was established specifically to sell the portfolio model said, “We’re skeptical that systems themselves will actually go through some sort of self-driven transformation.” Chalkbeat reported that the new plan for growth had three strategies.

  • Strategy #1: Apply outside pressure. (Increase pressure on school districts by bringing in outside competition and supporting local competing initiatives.)
  • Strategy #2: Push for one-stop school enrollment. (This forces public school districts to help the privatized schools and gives them an equivalency in the eyes of the public.)
  • Strategy #3: Create a very different power structure. (Use financial resources to change the makeup of existing governing boards or establish mayoral appointed boards.)

In the 2017 Denver Public School Board election, four of the seven seats were on the ballot. The results:

  • At large seat: Former Lieutenant Governor Barbra O’Brian defeated a field of three candidates 40% to 35% to 24%. O’Brian spent $8.94 per vote, Robert Speth spent $0.77 per vote and Julie Banuelos spent $0.33 per vote.
  • Distict 2: Angela Corbian a former Teach For America (TFA) corps member beat Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan who had union support. Unfortunately, Gaytan had to spend time cleaning up after union blunders. The winner Corbian is currently an organizer for Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) the TFA offshoot that trains former corps members “to engage civically.” Cobian’s support included $67,000 from DFER’s Raising Colorado and tens of thousands of dollars from local and national “reformers.”
  • District 3: Dr. Carrie Olson, a 33-year DPS teacher won this seat with very little financial or people support from the teachers union. She astonishingly defeated Mike Johnson the incumbent who raised over $100,000 on his own and received almost another $100,000 from DFER and Stand for Children. Olson’s victory reduces the “reform” majority back to 6-1.
  • District 4: Jennifer Bacon another former TFA corps member won. She raised $70,000 on her own and shockingly received $139,000 from the teachers union. Bacon also received reformer money from TFA national board member Arthur Rock. The incumbent Rachael Espiritu had a large war chest of $97,000 from DFER and $93,000 that she raised but Espiritu was running in a district that had had its fill of reform. A third candidate in this district was 19-year-old Tay Anderson.

When analyzing this election, Jeanne Kaplan said the biggest losers were “Denver’s teachers, who are paying dues to an organization that turned its back on a 33 year teacher and endorsed a heavily funded alum of TFA…”

Dismal Results from Denver’s Portfolio District

school segragation chart

Chart of Racial Isolation Based on October Count for School Year 2017-18

Of Denver’s 204 schools, One-hundred have a population that is greater than or equal to 70% Hispanic. When the Hispanic and black students are summed 68 schools have 90% or more students from these minority groups. The AP reported in 2017 that charter schools were among the nation’s most segregated schools. There analysis found, “As of school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily.”

Racial isolation is a characteristic of districts employing the portfolio model. This kind of profound segregation runs afoul of federal law, good education and decency. It does not comply with the 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The big selling point for modern school reform was closing the achievement gap. The achievement gap is measured by finding the average score differences between ethnicity groups on standards based tests. A 2011 report in Education Week stated, With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, closing achievement gaps among these various student groups became a focus of federal education accountability…”

achievment gap 2017

Table of Reading and Math Achievement Gaps Derived from NAEP Testing Data

In the tables above – based on average scale scores – it shows national results have a smaller gap than the large city results. Predictably, Denver has among the nation’s largest achievement gaps after two-decades of “billionaire” led reform.

In the fall of 2015, the Center on Reinventing Public Education  (CRPE) which is the central think tank promoting portfolio models ranked Denver Public Schools 45th out of 50 urban districts for improving graduation rates.

Denver’s pro-privatization citizen oversight group, A+ Colorado (formerly A+ Denver) in a recently released report, showed concern over the district’s progress stating,

“Let’s be clear: There has been progress in DPS, particularly in comparison to other Colorado districts. But some student learning outcomes are stalled or improving far too slowly for the district to be successful.”

DPS received another black-eye this January when a Chalkbeat headline revealed, “Denver has 1 administrator for every 7.5 instructional staff — far above state average.” The article presented the following chart for administrators in Denver compared to the rest of the state over the past ten years.

administrator growth chart

Chart of Administration Growth during the “Reform Era”

In 2017 the New York Times ran an interactive article about a new way to compare schools. The article said,

“It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.”

The New York Times picked the comparison schools while the reader picks the district of interest. This simulator attempts to correlate by years of learning. The average between 3rd  and 8th grade should be five years. After 13 years of disruption and “reform,” Denver remains a little below average with lackluster growth.

student growth models

After Five Years Denver’s Eighth Graders Still below Average

All the closing schools and disrupting neighborhoods brought little or no significant change. Denver’s students are still measured as being about the same amount behind in 8th grade as when they started 3rd grade.

A 2015 hiring analysis revealed that DPS paid TFA $5000 to $7000 per recruit? TFA teachers are two year temps with a college degree and five-weeks of training. From 2012-2015, Denver taxpayers paid TFA $520,600 for 232 recruits at traditional schools and over $800,000 for 267 recruits at charter schools. DCTA President Henry Roman stated that teacher turnover is a crisis in DPS. He claims the average teacher tenure has dropped to two years.

Traditional teacher new hires have a college degree, one-year of post graduate pedagogy study and a year of supervised student teaching. They arrive at schools with the expectation of making teaching a career.

The reliance on untrained teachers along with recognizing and using a fake graduate school created by the charter industry explains why all of the spending on reform has not resulted in better performance. The fake graduate school is Relay Graduate School. It’s Denver Dean, Therese Zosel-Harper, is working on her PhD. Relay is an obviously fake graduate school because it has no credentialed education scholars on staff.

Where did the Portfolio District Model Originate?

A Rand Corporation researcher named Paul Hill founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) on the campus at the University of Washington three years after John Chubb and Terry Moe wrote a popular book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools which was published in 1990 by The Brookings Institution. That book which was a sensation among neo-liberals called for the end of elected school boards. Hill began thinking about the mechanics for making that happen.

In 2002, Hill wrote a paper sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation calling for changes in school governance,

“… [T]he last few decades of education reform have shown us that simply tinkering at the edges is not enough to ensure that changes will take place. Reforms need to be comprehensive and needs to affect every level of the education system.”

Hill’s statement and the book by Chubb and Moe were both motivated by the conviction that public schools in America were failing. It was not true then nor was it true in 1889, 1942, 1955, 1959, 1963 nor is it true now.

Jim Arnold and Peter Smagorinsky wrote,

“Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.” In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War. The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.”

The paragraph above recalls more than a century of national failure to properly educate our citizenry yet in that same century America became the world’s leader economically, scientifically, militarily and culturally. Does this mean that education quality does not matter or is it more likely that the perception of American education failing – is and was an illusion? Based on this illusion of failure are we being driven toward failure with unproven market theories? That is what the portfolio theory is. It is an unproven market theory of education governance.

William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner, University of Colorado Boulder wrote a short paper “The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance.” Their basic definition explains,

“Generally  speaking,  four  reform  strategies  are  combined,  in  varying  degrees,  in  portfolio  districts:  (1)  performance-based  (generally  test-based)  accountability,  (2)  school-level  de-centralization of management, (3) the reconstitution or closing of “failing” schools, and (4) the expansion of choice, primarily through charter schools.”

In Denver there are 204 schools; 106 public schools, 42 charter schools and 56 innovation schools. In accordance with portfolio district theory, Denver residents no longer have the right to vote on the governance of 108 of their publicly financed schools. In addition, both charter schools and innovation schools are generally non-union.

The innovation school concept is promoted nationally by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC model legislation these schools “are provided a greater degree of autonomy and can waive some statutory requirements.” In Denver, innovation schools are given a three year contract during which they are run by a non-profit. The results (testing data) at the end of the contract will dictate whether the experiment on the school children continues.

Innovation schools have only existed in Colorado since 2009. When the DPS board approved them in 2016, Board President Anne Rowe claimed, “I’m trying to think of a time I’ve been more excited, more proud, more optimistic about what we can achieve for kids.”

Conclusions

While Interviewing DCTA President Henry Roman, Jeff Fard said when he moves into a neighborhood he expects to register his kids in the local community school. “If I don’t like the school, I expect to roll up my sleeves and work to make it better.” If he still doesn’t like the school, he will pay for them to go to a private school. This is how it is supposed to be in America; people work for the betterment of their own community and pay for their own choices. However, if you live in portfolio districts like Denver, unseen and unelected forces control the neighborhood.

As Jitu Brown and the Journey for Justice have declared,

“We are not fooled by the ‘illusion of school choice.’ The policies of the last twenty years, driven more by private interests than by concern for our children’s education, are devastating our neighborhoods and our democratic rights.”

It is past time for the citizens of Denver to take back their democratic rights and their public schools.

Sweetwater Schools Financial Problems Became Political Cudgel

9 Jan

The newly hired Chief Financial Officer of Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), Jenny Salkeld, discovered a significant problem with the budget she inherited. She presented her findings to the Sweetwater leadership team in early September which forwarded her report onto the County Office of Education (COE). The SUHSD board also called in all bargaining units to suspend contract negotiations and inform them of the budgetary uncertainties. Sensationalism and subterfuge became the new reality in Chula Vista, California.

An October San Diego Union article reported,

“On June 25, the school board approved a budget for this school year that assumed the district had spent $328 million in unrestricted funding last school year and had $17 million in reserves going into this school year. In September, Salkeld presented a report showing that the district actually had spent $20 million more than that and started this school year with a negative reserve balance of $4 million.

“On top of spending more than previously estimated, the district received $6 million less in one-time state funding than it had expected.”

salkeld brief bio

After receiving Sweetwater’s alert about the accounting errors, the COE officially disapproved the 2018-19 budget the district had submitted. The reasons for disapproving the budget were the reasons Salkeld had reported. The county’s September 18 letter stated,

“The disapproval of the adopted budget is based on an assessment and analysis of the following major components of the district’s budget.

  • Preliminary 2017-18 negative unrestricted General Fund ending balance
  • Projected 2018-19 revenues overstated
  • Projected 2018-19 expenditures understated
  • Structural deficit in current and upcoming fiscal years
  • Cash concerns”

Apparently someone at the county leaked the budget information to the Voice of San Diego. The district which was in the process of understanding the extent of the problem did not have that opportunity. Instead they were faced with a withering public attack in both the San Diego Union and The Voice of San Diego. The headlines implied that a group of incompetent people at SUHSD were incapable of managing their affairs and were involved in possible fraud.

In the more than twenty reports in these two publications from September through December, it was obscured that it was the Sweetwater District which found the problem and informed the county. It was also never pointed out that budget analysts at the COE failed in their oversight responsibilities.

In November, the county approved Sweetwater’s revised budget.

Budget Shortfalls Throughout the State

Kristen Taketa reporting for the San Diego Union noted,

At least 10 districts in the county are projecting that they will not be able to meet their financial commitments next school year, including Chula Vista Elementary, Jamul-Dulzura Union, Mountain Empire Unified, Oceanside Unified, San Diego Unified, San Marcos Unified, San Ysidro, Sweetwater and Vista Unified. More districts won’t be able to meet their financial commitments after next year.

Teketa provided three reasons for what is a statewide public school funding problem:

  1. Rising pension costs: To address looming pension debt, the state in 2014 started increasing school districts’ share of pension costs. In 2013-14, school districts paid 8 percent of their teachers’ salaries to the state’s teacher pension fund. This year, they had to pay 16 percent.
  2. Rising special education costs
  3. Declining enrollment: Oceanside officials estimate that they can only compensate for 40 percent of revenue lost when they lose students. The student enrollment losses are attributed mostly to charter schools. California, unlike some states, does not financially mitigate the burden caused by charter schools on public school districts. The only option districts have is to reduce services to the remaining students.

Last May, In the Public Interest published a paper by University of Oregon’s Professor Gordon Lafer called “Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts.” He looked specifically at the impact of charter schools on San Diego Unified School District. Lafer found that the annual impact of student losses was $65,902,809 and that the cost per charter school student was $4,913.

By taking the 5500 students in charter schools instead of Sweetwater schools and multiplying that number by a conservative estimate of $4,000 in cost per student the total is $22,000,000 in stranded costs for the district; more than the budget error Salkeld discovered.

enrollment graphs

Charter Student Growth Compared with District Enrollment

What Caused the Budget Error?

Gene Chavira, President of the Sweetwater Education Association (affiliate of the California Teachers Association) said he believes this budget problem has roots that stretch back to the early 2000’s when Ed Brand was serving his first term as Superintendent. Chavira referenced some strange land sales from that period. Later, during Brand’s second stint as Superintendent, he and SUHSD CFO Diana Russo established two charter schools; another move Gene found suspicious.

The two charter schools were elementary schools belonging to SUHSD. The neighboring elementary school districts were unhappy and reacted by expanding their own charter schools to include the grades 7 – 12 that were serviced by Sweetwater.

After Brand came Jesus Gandara. In 2006, two Sweetwater board members, Jim Cartmill and Arlie Ricasa, flew to Texas and personally interviewed Gandara before he was hired as the Superintendent of Sweetwater schools. It appears that the board members and their search firm ignored some obvious warning signs when they made the hire. In 2011, the board voted to fire Gandara for abuse and brought back Ed Brand to lead the district. Another odd decision, since he had just been forced out as Superintendent of San Marcos Unified under accusations of nepotism.

In April of 2014, four of the five Sweetwater board members (Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez, Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa) plus Superintendent Jesus Gandara pled guilty to corruption charges and resigned.

In 2015, five new board members and a new superintendent took leadership of SUHSD. Chavira recalled vividly that he and many others called on the new board to conduct a forensic audit, but the board – though for it in principal – rejected spending the more than $1,000,000 required. Chavira feels that was one of two big mistakes made. The second was that they did not replace the existing finance team.

board group photo 2018

2018 SUHSD Board – Standing from the left: Arturo Solis, Frank Tarantino, Nicholas Segura, Kevin Pike. Seated from the Left: Paula Hall, Student Member Brenna Pangelinan, Superintendent Karen Janney. Photo from District

Throughout the lead up to this current budget problem, the new board has been extremely popular. In the 2018 election, Hall, Solis and Tarantino ran for reelection unopposed. Professor Karen Janney was a student, a teacher and an administrator in SUHSD. She was forced out of the district by then Superintendent Gandara. After which, she taught education leadership at San Diego State University.

This group has accumulated some amazing talent and support. The 2016 audit committee added two new members, Maricela Garcia-Centeno and Bill Kowba making this a power house committee. Existing committee member, Trustee Paula Hall, works as a financial analyst in San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). Garcia-Centeno is a Certified Internal Auditor and Certified Fraud Examiner. Bill Kowba is a retired Rear Admiral who served both as Chief Financial Officer and Superintendent of SDUSD.

The audit committee’s 2016 report showed concerns regarding transparency and the need for more light shined on budget internals. They stated, “We are recommending the District direct the audit team so that work is not disproportionally focused on well regulated programs but performs a ‘deeper dive’ into areas that have potential of higher risk.

In 2017, the audit committee was recommendingdeeper testing for certain elements of the 2016-17 audit along with a recommendation for a special audit focusing on accounts payable, purchasing and contracts including ….” The implicit message was that the committee was not happy with the answers they were getting or perhaps not getting.

CFO Karen Michel and three members of her small team retired upon completion of the 2018-19 Sweetwater budget. All indications were that these were planned retirements.

After Salkeld’s report showing a $20,000,000 budget error, the county called in the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assist Team (FCMAT). On December 17th the FCMAT study was presented to the Sweetwater board. The Voice of San Diego reported,

“FCMAT’s chief executive officer Michael Fine told board members that 302 entries in the district’s accounting system were doctored to create the impression the district had more money than it really did. ‘That my friends and colleagues, is a cover-up,’ he said, …”

This is a puzzling statement. In the report Fine says, “While the district prepares budget revisions throughout the fiscal year, detailed information provided by the district shows that budget revisions totaling millions of dollars include negative budget entries that lack sufficient supporting documentation.”  His study comes to several conclusions tending against Sweetwater that lack strong evidentiary basis and it has no details about what he later labeled “a cover-up.” Now, Fine will be conducting a fraud audit. If he does not find fraud, won’t he be open to a libel charge? Can his audit be trusted?

A December 21st Voice of San Diego headline states, “County Ed Office Takes Control of Sweetwater’s Board.” The county had issued a “stay and rescind” order which gives them veto power over some decisions made by the SUHSD board. This begs the question, why did the county which dropped the ball here jump so quickly into this drastic step when the district team which found the problem has been addressing it aggressively?

The SUHSD web-site has a response to the issues raised. The opening paragraph says,

“Over the past few months the Sweetwater Union High School District has faced significant challenges with respect to our organizational budget. … We realize that these issues may seem insurmountable at times, but we want to assure you that despite some of the doubts being cast in the public, we are moving forward with a stabilization plan that will ensure positive financial health.”

There is also a letter from Superintendent Janney about the “stay and rescind” order. She cites remarks by Dr. Mark Skvarna, a financial advisor from the county, about the limitations on the order. Janney writes, “This authority is specific to the actions that are ‘inconsistent with the district’s ability to meet its financial obligations.’”

The San Diego Union and the Voice of San Diego are Biased Against Public Education

Editorials in the San Diego Union continually attack teachers and their unions. An editorial leading up to the 2018 general election called for a former banker and charter school chief as Secretary of Public Instruction (SPI). Following a familiar destroy public education (DPE) script; another editorial created a false crisis as the predicate for an urgent plea to elect charter school executive, Marshall Tuck, over California State Assemblyman, Tony Thurmond.

In 2005, Buzz Woolley founded Voice of San Diego. It was the first digital nonprofit news organization to serve a local community in the country. Besides his interest in using new technologies for media, Woolley also is enthusiastic about education technology in the classroom. In 2013 Woolley’s Girard Foundation sent over $500,000 to companies developing software for “personalized” education and competency-based education.

The year before starting the Voice of San San Diego, Woolley and Gap Founder Don Fisher established the Charter School Growth Fund. John Walton (Walmart heir) and Greg Penner (Walmart heir) joined the board. In 2016, that fund had assets of $217,176,094 with a yearly income of $95,184,785.

A local media watch dog report tells the story of an education reporter losing her job while perusing a store about the COE. Blogger Maura Larkins wrote,

“Voice of San Diego dropped its coverage of SDCOE attorney shenanigans, and laid-off its stellar education reporter Emily Alpert.”

“Voice of San Diego benefactors Buzz Woolley and Irwin Jacobs [founded Qualcomm], who claim to care about education, could have easily paid Emily’s salary with their pocket change if they’d wanted her to stay.”

“It seems Buzz Woolley, Irwin Jacobs and Emily Alpert weren’t on the same page.”

Some Concluding Words

Superintendent Janney may have been wrong to retain the inherited financial team; however, in 2015 she had a lot on her plate. A Trustee said that Janney began by focusing on education leadership in the district. There was a widely shared belief that several administrators were in positions by dint of cronyism and that many of them were incompetent. When she was alerted to the budget issue, Janney reacted professionally. She immediately informed stakeholders and the COE.

The budget error appears to have originated within the financial department. FCMAT Director Fine claimed it was a “cover-up.” Maybe he is right but he did not present much convincing evidence; only reporting that some entries that subtracted from the deficit were not sufficiently documented. It is hard to see the motive for financial professionals engaging in this “cover-up,” but people sometimes make strange decisions.

Two mainstream media outlets in San Diego that have regularly promoted privatizing public education and “corporate education reform” have been ruthlessly attacking SUHSD. They have indicated that the leaders in Chula Vista are incompetent and corrupt. The obvious dog-whistle here is that there are too many non-whites in SUHSD leadership.

The truth is that the SUHSD team is highly competent and has delivered a refreshing era of ethics and openness to the South-bay. Karen Janney is an educator with deep knowledge and experience, plus she is a gifted leader and public speaker. The present financial team led by Jenny Salkald is much more impressive than the county or state teams who have been nothing short of unprofessional.

The real investigation should be into whom or what is motivating this unjust attack on SUHSD? Also, why are we paying all those bloated salaries at the San Diego County Office of Education and for what?