Fraud at Sweetwater; Maybe but Unlikely

1 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/1/2020

For the past week, local San Diego TV and Print media have been filled with damning headlines like the NBC affiliate’s, Audit of Sweetwater Union High School District Finds Evidence of Fraud” or the online publication Voice of San Diego’s “Audit Finds Sweetwater Officials Deliberately Manipulated Finances.” Every local news outlet published the story with some version of these headlines.

On Monday June 23, the Fiscal Crisis Management Assist Team (FCMAT) presented the results of its long awaited audit of Sweetwater Union High School District’s (SUHSD) finances. The report authors state,

“Based on the findings in this report, there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that fraud, misappropriation of funds and/or assets, or other illegal fiscal practices may have occurred in the specific areas reviewed.”

How Did SUHSD Arrive Here?

For Sweetwater, this is really a continuation of the course set by corrupt leadership a decade earlier. It is also emblematic of the financial stress all California school districts are facing. Kristen Taketa reporting for the San Diego Union noted in November 2018:

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.

Three factors are mainly responsible for these growing financial stresses. The state has mandated a more than doubling of teacher retirement payments from 8.1% to 18.4% without providing extra assets. Special education costs have been soaring and enrollment has been shrinking due to an increase in state funded privately operated schools.

enrollment-graphs

The Drop in Attendance Accounts for a $20 Million Drop in Revenue

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. The fifth member of the five person board, John McCann left the board to run for a seat on the Chula Vista city council.

Cartmill and Lopez pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of accepting gifts over the state limit. Quinones, Ricasa and Gandara were charged with felonies. Arlie Ricasa pled guilty receiving probation and a fine. Gandara was sentenced to 7-months jail time and fined $7,994.

Pearl Quinones also pled guilty and stated “I would have fought it to the very end if I had been able to afford to keep fighting it.” She received a three-year probation with the felony being reduced to a misdemeanor.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called this a “pay-for-play” scheme stating,

“For years, public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multi-million dollar construction projects. This case is outrageous and shameful.”

In my opinion, Gandara was out of control and deserved the outcome. On the other hand, the school board members’ biggest mistake might have been being careless while the district attorney was planning to run for mayor.

I was politically opposed to the four indicted board members but never believed they were selling their votes and still don’t. I believe they did put the school district and the community first. Dumanis painted them with Superintendent Gandara’s malfeasance.

It is true that they all accepted a small number of free dinners and tickets to local sporting events and did not report some of them correctly. DA Dumanis over-charged them with misdemeanors and felonies that forced their resignations from the board. She could have more appropriately cited them with infractions which would have brought fines, however, the DA valued headlines over justice.

An entirely new five member school board was elected in November, 2014. After completing the school year with interim-superintendents, the board selected Karen Janney to be the new permanent Superintendent of SUHSD. That June 8, 2015 decision was a hailed by the board, the community and the teachers union.

In a 2019 interview, teacher’s union President Gene Chavira said he felt Janney made two critical errors. She rejected the expense of having a forensic audit performed on the district’s finances and she did not listen to board members and labor leaders when they encouraged her to bring in an outside leader for the finance department.

Janney had been a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the district. She evidently had formed a strong relationship with Karen Michel and wanted her to be the district’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

Michel and her number two, Douglas Martens, retired in June of 2018. There last official act was delivering the budget for school year 2018-19. The budget was approved by the board on June 25th and sent to the County Office of Education (COE) for final approval.

Jenny Salkeld was hired to replace Michel as CFO. In early September, Salkeld discovered a $20 million negative discrepancy in the budget and reported it to the Sweetwater leadership team which forwarded her report to the COE.

The County immediately disapproved of the SUHSD budget and brought in the Fiscal Crisis Management Assist Team (FCMAT) to investigate Sweetwater’s finances.

The FCMAT Audit

Audit Team

CEO Michael Fine and the Four Women Who Performed the SUHSD Extraordinary Audit

FCMAT was created and signed into law in 1991 by Governor Pete Wilson. The Kern County Superintendent of Schools office was selected as the administrative and fiscal agent for FCMAT. It is not a government entity but does receive financial support from the state.

FCMAT is organized as a non-profit. The purpose of FCMAT was to provide districts experiencing budget issues with professional leadership. However, they have developed a reputation for being more about helping political allies than struggling school districts.

The County’s official rejection of the 2018-19 budget was a trigger bringing in FCMAT to conduct a Fiscal Health Risk Analysis. On December 17th, 2018, the Analysis results were presented to Sweetwater’s board by FCMAT CEO Michael Fine. 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,’ …”

Although Michael Fine’s charge of “cover-up” appears mistaken according to the new audit, it does point to a central problem that led to a bad budget. The audit revised the 302 “negative budget entry” count to 220 and explained the origin of these often inadequately documented inputs.

The auditors reported that SUHSD began the budgeting process by rolling the 2017-18 budget into the beginning template for the 2018-19 budget. This was not viewed as unusual, but projections concerning changing budget demands then needed to be inserted into the budget model and that was not satisfactorily done.

FCMAT states, “Interviews with staff … indicate that the district was not utilizing data from a position control system to project salaries and benefit obligations.”

Apparently the suspicious entries were the budget being updated based on actual costs when they arrived. These entries were suspicious because they were not documented in accordance with the California School Accounting Manuel.

I worked in SUHSD from 2002 – 2017 and these findings seem to confirm my own impression of unprofessionalism in the district office. It didn’t appear corrupt but there was little concern with meeting deadlines, crossing t’s and dotting i’s.

In the audit, FCMAT questioned delays in posting payroll transactions. They wondered if these delays were purposeful for hiding the understatement of salaries and benefits in the budget. They concluded it was not, but does give more evidence of the lack of professionalism in the financial department.

In the report, FCMAT says Superintendent Karen Janney, CFO Karen Michel, Director of Financial Services Douglas Martens and Financial Consultant Adam Bauer may be guilty of financial fraud over the February 2018 bond deal. However, much of the damning evidence comes down to the fact that they followed Bauer’s advice about the best path to guarantee a good bond rating.

Laws and methods had changed since the last time Sweetwater did a bond deal. It is difficult to understand why SUHSD not following previous processes with fidelity was considered suspicious.

FCMAT also claims Sweetwater officials should have known that the drop in ending revenue between 2016 and 2017 from $36,285,098 to $21,469,748 indicated deteriorating financial conditions. This was also part of FCMAT’s evidence for Sweetwater knowingly misleading the bond markets about the district’s financial health.

The “extraordinary audit” was triggered by FCMAT’s declaration in December 2018 of possible fraud and cover up. By agreement with the county the audit was quite limited and focused almost exclusively on the 2017-18 budget year and SUHSD internal budgeting processes.

By comparison, a forensic audit of SUHSD is estimated to cost as much as $2,000,000; the county cost for this “extraordinary audit” was estimated at $50,700.

The auditors did not look at data from previous years.

Going Forward

The audit was delivered Monday, 6/23/2020. The document reminds the district’s board, “Within 15 days of receipt of the report, the governing board is required to notify the county superintendent of its proposed actions regarding the county superintendent’s recommendations.”

Board member Paula Hall indicated this would not be a problem since they have already instituted many of the FCMAT suggestions. She also expressed how pleased she was with CFO Jenny Salkeld’s professionalism. Hall believes the district now has strong leadership in finance.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed the state budget on Monday, June 29th. Now Salkeld’s team needs to finish the 2020-21 budget and present it to the board.

Wednesday the 25th, the Sweetwater board met in a virtual executive session and put Karen Janney on paid administrative leave by a vote of 4-1. A board member said that in the uncertain legal climate they felt this move was needed to protect both the district and Janney.

The board also voted to lay off 223 employees and selected Dr. Moises Aguirre to serve as acting Superintendent.

Aguirre must now pick up the ball and continue the planning for opening school on August 3rd.

Dr. Aguirre faces the challenge of how to safely open schools in the Sars-CoV-2 era if that is even possible. If not, he and the Sweetwater team must find a way to make distance learning work for all 36,000 students.

My best guess is that there was no intentional fraud or purposeful financial misleading in SUHSD. It looks like there was a significant budget creation error that collided with state created structural deficits. I do not expect any prosecutions.

If meaningful changes are not made to California school financing, there are going to be many more districts running into these same structural deficits with no good solutions.

3 Responses to “Fraud at Sweetwater; Maybe but Unlikely”

  1. Accountability July 1, 2020 at 5:03 am #

    This guy is a union puppet. Connected to Janney, Gene Chavira, and probably Frank Tarantino

    Like

  2. Paula Hall July 1, 2020 at 2:09 pm #

    You have written a very fact based article and I thank you. Paula

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device Get Outlook for Android

    ________________________________

    Liked by 2 people

  3. peachymeyer July 3, 2020 at 2:30 am #

    Thanks for the clarification of a muddied issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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