FCMAT – California’s Unaccountable Political Player

28 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/28/2022

California Assemblywomen Delaine Eastin wrote legislation creating the Financial Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) in 1991. Her legislation was in response to the bankruptcy of the Richmond School District and requests for financial help from four other districts. In 1992, Governor Pete Wilson signed the legislation into law and located FCMAT (pronounced Fick-Mat) under the auspices of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Since then, its power has grown and portfolio expanded with little oversight. Today, there is a burgeoning chorus of critics calling for reform or even termination.

In the mid-1990’s, I made the trip through the south end of the San Joaquin Valley many times. On the car radio, the only listening choices available were Rush Limbaugh and the Buck Owens show from the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. Bakersfield is named after founder Thomas Baker but the name easily could refer to the weather. The city of a half-million sitting about 140 miles from Death Valley regularly sees temperatures over 100° F between May and October. It gets really hot for extended periods. That is where the FCMAT home office is located.

Bakersfield, the county seat of Kern County, is an economic powerhouse in both oil and agriculture. In 2020, it had a slightly larger Republican voter registration than Democratic (R=158,771 & D=152,102). Registrations have been almost evenly split for decades. In 1992, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson chose the Kern County Office of Education as administrative and fiscal agent for FCMAT, the Republican voter registration advantage totaled 118.

The Developing Juggernaut

FCMAT employs a neoliberal structure popularized in the United Kingdom called QUANGO. The Scottish writer Roland Watson describes QUANGO as a “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization.” Those of short duration are sometimes referred to as a task force. They carry out government mandates by receiving and issuing contracts. Watson noted that “its rear end looks distinctively democratic and accountable but the front part is definitely statist and bureaucratic.” The problem with a QUANGO is the tendency to overtly support the political agenda of whoever is in power.

The Data Center Reported that in 1992 FCMAT had a budget of $562,000 which ballooned to $35.6 million by 2002. The report also criticized its use of no-bid contracts and lack of accountability. Los Angeles State Assembly Woman Jackie Goldberg called for an audit of FCMAT in 2003. The state auditor reported that FCMAT was providing value to districts but did criticize the over use of no-bid contracts. That appears to be the only audit ever done of FCMAT.

Besides the legislation listed in Table 1, there are many legislative edicts for FCMAT to audit specific school districts. The districts are charged a no-bid fee for the mandated audits; FCMAT contracts out much of the work. Local school districts that have had previous financial issues often must pay a consulting fee to obtain FCMAT’s blessing in order to implement a budget. In districts with financial problems, this agency has more power over district policy than voters.

Transparent California reveals that the top 2020 total salary at FCMAT, $313,780.72, went to CEO Michael Fine. Including Michael, there were thirteen FCMAT staff members who earned more than $214,000 that year. The data shows that FCMAT had seventeen employees on staff being paid a total salary of $3,568,008.

Is it really about Gentrification?

In 2018, two school districts in California requested emergency funding to maintain operations. Both Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD) arrived in this predicament due to incompetent (unethical?) administration during a state takeover.

California took over Inglewood’s schools in 2012 because of financial problems that should properly be credited to George Bush’s No Child Left Behind and the state of California’s almost unregulated charter school movement. In 2016, Secretary of Public Instruction (SPI) Tom Torlakson recruited Vincent Mathews to be IUSD’s forth state appointed Superintendent.  

At the beginning of the millennium, Mathews led the for-profit Edison school in San Francisco. Later, he went through training at the infamous Broad Academy which included studying their handbook for closing public schools. He also served for two years as the state appointed superintendent for OUSD (2007-2009).

Mathews stayed 18 months in Inglewood before accepting the Superintendents position in San Francisco. About his Inglewood tenure, the LA Times noted,

“A recent report by the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found that, under Matthews, Inglewood had left day-to-day tasks to consultants, hadn’t monitored its budget and had underestimated its salary costs by about $1 million. The district had also overestimated its revenue, in part by incorrectly counting the number of students.”

FCMAT was supervising that state loan given to IUSD and was charged with monitoring the district’s finances. However, they missed the bad budgeting practices implemented by the state appointed administrator.

In Oakland Antwan Wilson another Broad Academy graduate blew a hole in the Budget under FCMAT’s less than watchful eye. After two and a half years on the job, he left Oakland to be superintendent of schools in the nation’s capital. Soon after that, huge budget problems were discovered causing the school board to immediately order more than $15 million in mid-year budget cuts.

In an article detailing some of the mismanagement and greed in Oakland, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reported:

“Wilson brought in dozens of executive staff members from outside the Oakland district, creating new positions and departments that were not budgeted, and paying more than was customary in the district, …. In 2013, before Wilson arrived in Oakland, only four administrators earned more than $200,000; two years later, at least 26 did…

The 2018 solution to these financial issues from the state legislature was AB 1840 which dictated the terms under which OUSD and IUSD could receive emergency funding. It signified that in the budget acts for the coming years, Oakland and Inglewood could apply for emergency funding if they met certain criteria. It also meant that their respective counties – Alameda and Los Angeles – would assume control from the state and use FCMAT to financially supervise the districts.

In SB 74 the 2020 budget act, Oakland received $16 million with the law stipulating “affirmative action by the governing board to continue planning for, and timely implement, a school and facility closure and consolidation plan that supports the sale or lease of surplus property”.

The next year, the new school board turned down $10 million authorized in SB 129 which again required “Affirmative action by the governing board to continue planning for, and timely implementation of, a school and facility closure and consolidation plan that supports the sale or lease of surplus property.”

FCMAT explains on their web site how the governing power in OUSD was changed by AB 1840:

“Under the provisions of Assembly Bill (AB) 1840 (Chapter 426/2018), the trustee serves under the direction and supervision of L.K. Monroe, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools. Assembly Bill 1840 designates FCMAT as the agency to identify and vet candidates to serve as county trustee. The final selection of a candidate for Oakland Unified School District trustee will be made by Superintendent Monroe, with the concurrence of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) and the president of the State Board of Education.”

In other words, OUSD no longer under state control is now under county control and their fiscal agent is FCMAT. Many people are wondering if the big push to sell off school properties from both the state and county is not motivated by gentrification and developer profits. It is well known that outside of a onetime cash infusion there are no significant savings associated with closing wholly owned school sites.

Working for the Bosses!

Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) in San Diego County went through a grueling few years. In April of 2014, four of the five Sweetwater board members plus district Superintendent Jesus Gandara pled guilty to corruption charges and resigned. This is when the current SUHSD board of Trustees was originally elected. Unlike the previous board that got its financial support from the construction industry, the new board members were all supported by the teachers’ union. This was not greeted enthusiastically by some local political forces.

During their first three years, the district ran harmoniously. In 2018, trouble emerged. There was a transition in leadership within the SUHSD financial team. The CFO, her top assistant and two other members of her small team retired after submitting the budget for the 2018-19 school year. That summer the new CFO, Jenny Salkeld, discovered a $20 million dollar error. She immediately reported her discovery to the district and county.

After receiving Sweetwater’s alert about the accounting errors, the County Office of Education officially disapproved the 2018-19 budget the district had submitted. The reasons for disapproving the budget were the reasons Salkeld had reported.

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 lost the opportunity. Instead they were faced with a withering public attack in both the San Diego Union and The Voice of San Diego. Headlines implied that a group of incompetent people at SUHSD were incapable of managing their affairs honestly.

Enter FCMAT. SUHSD was forced to pay them $50,000 to have finances reviewed. A preliminary report was delivered that December at a SUHSD district school board meeting. Voice of San Diego’s Will Huntsberry shared,

“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,’ …”

For weeks, local San Diego TV and Print media were 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 a story with some version of these headlines. There was speculation that the fraud had to do with a large school bond measure voters had approved and predicted multiple people were going to prison.

The following June FCMAT issued its completed report. It certainly weighed an ‘A’ (my mother’s satirical goal for a college research paper) but was not of great value. By the time the report arrived, SUHSD had already implemented a vast majority of the recommended fixes to their budgeting process. Eventually, the former SUHSD CFO was fined $28,000 for falsely attesting to the accuracy of the budget and the district agreed that they would bring in an independent consultant for any future bond offerings. Ironically, the district had used an independent consultant for the bond offering in question.

This April, the San Diego Union’s Kristin Tanaka reported, “Seventeen of San Diego County’s 42 school districts are projecting that they will spend more than they take in — not just in the current school year, but the next two years — as districts grapple with rising costs and lower enrollment, according to the latest batch of financial projections districts submitted to the county.” SUHSD was not one of the seventeen. The district survived the crisis and still has the same apparently popular school board in place.

It was a similar story in 2003 for OUSD. Then Superintendent Dennis Chaconas realized that the accounting system was dated and needed modernizing. EducationNext reported “New software, installed so that the school district could better understand its finances, had uncovered a $40 million deficit from the previous year.” Most sources say it was actually a $37 million dollar deficit but still big and shocking.

Ken Epstein shared, “OUSD had adequate money on hand in a construction fund that could have temporarily paid off the shortfall, but the state would not allow Oakland to tap into that fund, though the practice was allowed in other districts.”

Local political leaders like then Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and influential state Senator Don Peralta wanted OUSD taken over by the state. They used FCMAT in an effort to make it happen. Online news source Majority reports that when OUSD proposed covering the shortfall with construction funds:

“Tom Henry, the CEO of California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Team (FCMAT) opposed this plan, and Mayor Brown questioned it heavily. (During a state takeover, FCMAT would be responsible for monitoring the school district’s financial progress.) Phone records later obtained by the Oakland Tribune revealed over 40 phone calls on key dates between Brown, Henry, and Randolph Ward, who would end up in charge of OUSD when it was placed under state control, in the two months before the state takeover.”

During the same period, there were no phone calls to OUSD Superintendent Dennis Chaconas.

OUSD was forced to accept a $100 million dollar loan and taken over by the state instead of paying off the deficit with the $37 million dollars from their construction fund. After almost two decades of state and county control financially supervised by FCMAT, Oakland is still stuck with $6 million dollar yearly loan payments until at least 2026 and the state appointed administrator was allowed to create a new financial crisis.

….

At the very minimum, it is time to reign in and reform FCMAT. They have become an authoritarian lever used by people in power to enact their unpopular agendas. It is supposedly an “Assistance Team” but in reality FCMAT is causing more damage than their “assistance” is worth.

One Response to “FCMAT – California’s Unaccountable Political Player”

  1. Jon Awbrey May 29, 2022 at 2:12 pm #

    Shades of the Crown Charter Corporations we had to revolt against to form a country in the first place.

    Like

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