Tag Archives: SUHSD

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.

The Vicious Attack on Sweetwater Union High School District

14 Mar

By Thomas Ultican 3/14/2020

Chula Vista, California

Superintendent Karen Janney and the school board at Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) have a target on their backs. In September 2018, new Chief Financial Officer, Jenny Salkeld, announced there was a $20 million dollar hole in the submitted 2018-2019 school year budget. Salkeld had discovered a long smoldering budget irregularity. Janney immediately reported the budget issue to the County Office of Education and informed the bargaining units with whom she was negotiating about the new uncertainties. Since then, journalists looking for readers and politicians looking for opportunities have robustly slimed the district and its leaders.

A Quadruple Whammy

Besides the mystery of going from a reported $17 million positive budget to an actual $10 million deficit, Janney and the board of trustees had to deal with the states increased pension payment requirements, a hike in special education costs and shrinking enrollment.

In the 2013-2014 school year, the state required school districts to pay 8% of teachers’ salaries to the California Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS). In the just submitted Second Interim budget report, Salkeld revealed that the rate is now 17.1% and will increase to 18.4% in the 2020-2021 school year. In other words, the retirement costs have more than doubled.

This school year, spending on special education has zoomed to $62.5 million and is projected to reach almost $70 million in two years.

In addition, SUHSD is experiencing shrinking enrollment. Between 2014 and today the average daily attendance in the district has dropped from 38,302 to 36,023. That accounts for another $20 million in lost revenue. The drop is almost entirely fueled by the expanding charter school sector. In the 2018-2019 school year, 15% of 7th grade through 12th grade students in the Sweetwater service area were in charter schools; a total of 6,281 students. (Number of students derived by cross referencing county charter school data with state attendance records.)

With all of the turmoil, the fact that SUHSD has 13 high schools and 11 middle schools in excellent facilities with professional leadership and highly skilled educators is often overlooked. According to the state, 23% of the district’s students are English language learners and 60% are socioeconomically disadvantaged. What might surprise outsiders is that the professional educators in Sweetwater love their jobs, their students and their schools. They take great pride in the quality of education being provided and are not disturbed in the least by the learning challenges associated with these kinds of student demographics.

However the current situation has presented an opportunity for demagoguery. Chula Vista Elementary has for several years gotten around the law limiting them to grades K-6 by starting dependent charter schools. They now have five dependent charter schools educating 2,108 students who would otherwise be in SUHSD schools. A recent article in the San Diego Union reports “Chula Vista district leaders say they want to give parents more options for middle school as soon as this July.” They want to steal more students.

Sweetwater 2018 Budgets Compared

Comparing the June 2018 Budget with the Revised October 2018 Budget

Is it Time to Replace Karen Janney?

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. This is when the current SUHSD board of Trustees was originally elected. On June 8, 2015 the board selected Karen Janney to be the new permanent Superintendent of the district.

Janney was born and raised in the district. She began teaching in SUHSD in 1978 and soon became an administrator. When Jesus Gandara was appointed Superintendent in 2006, Janney was serving as Assistant Superintendent of schools. By 2009, she had completed her doctorate in Education Leadership and Administration at San Diego State University (SDSU) and had been forced out of the SUHSD by Superintendent Gandara.

Janney had many friends in the district who were excited by her selection as the new superintendent. I was working at Mar Vista High School at the time and vividly recall how two staff members that were taking her education leadership course at SDSU were absolutely thrilled. I was OK with her selection but had some unfounded reservations that I kept to myself.

I soon became troubled by three different Janney agendas. I was bothered when she found funding to buy tee-shirts for all staff. The shirts had “Sweetwater Union High School District Putting Students First” emblazoned across the front. Though not mandated, there was pressure applied to wear these corporate styled promotional tee-shirts on certain days. It reminded me of the corporate approach to leadership employed by large charter school chains.

IMG_20200312_125802

Corporate Type of Promotion Foisted on SUHSD Teachers

A second and more troubling policy change came a few months into her tenure. Janney announced that Sweetwater was joining the Core Districts. Originally conceived as an organization for leaders in urban school districts to share strategies, CORE gained notoriety when its eight districts led by John Deasy of Los Angeles Unified made a legally questionable side deal with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. They agreed to evaluate teachers using testing data for a chance at Race to the Top grants. Today, CORE is offering to conduct school evaluations for California districts using the residual-gain growth model as an alternative to the California Department of Education evaluation method.

Worse – in 2017, Janney scrapped the district’s expensive I-pad program and replaced it with another Ed Tech industry scheme for putting students at glowing screens. She purchased laptop computers for all students and staff. She had succumbed to the allure of education technology and its associated bad pedagogy. Janney also signed the Future Ready pledge making SUHSD a target for education technology salesmen.

Since the budget crisis began, it has become apparent that Janney is incapable of creating a good working relationship with the County Office of Education (COE). It may not be all her fault. She has been careful to legally comply with the COE but has not developed any visible cooperative relationships.

Superintendents are in charge. School boards only approve or disapprove of the agenda set before them by the Superintendent. From the beginning of her administration, board members, union leaders and community members recommended that she replace the financial department’s leadership. Janney refused and turned away calls in 2015 for a forensic audit of the district’s finances. She was not willing to accept the almost $2 million dollar price tag. These two decisions are central to the financial situation the district is in today. Many people were predicting financial issues would eventually be revealed.

When the crisis first manifested in September 2018, trustees and others encouraged Janney to utilize existing expertise within the district to run a messaging campaign making sure the district’s side of the story was being told. Janney chose instead to leave existing communications director, Manny Rubio, as the sole district spokesperson. During the first two months, there was no public response to the crisis by SUHSD. Rubio was content to wait and react to media questioning.

As the hidden $20 million dollar problem and growing structural issues created an urgent need for budget cuts, Janney made another critical error. Under her leadership the district’s central office staff has doubled. This is where cuts should be expected but Janney has rejected most cuts to her staff. To successfully solve the crisis she needs the cooperation of the Sweetwater Education Association (SEA – the teacher union), however, cutting teachers before district staff is undermining collaboration.

Union Chart of Sweetwater Staffing

An SEA Flyer for the March 10 School Board Meeting

FCMAT is a QUANGO and that’s Not Good

The Financial Crisis Management Assist Team (FCMAT) was summoned to Sweetwater to look at the budget. After a three day deep dive into SUHSD finances, FCMAT CEO Michael Fine delivered a report and some damning words. He said that 302 entries that made the district finances look better were not well documented. He concluded, “That my friends and colleagues, is a cover-up.” He also suggested the district was in danger of a state takeover.

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 a QUANGO which Roland Watson describes as “a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization.” It is a neo-liberal construct common in the UK. Those of short duration are sometime called task forces; they are set up to look at an issue, report their recommendations and then disband. 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.

It is eerie how closely the issue in SUHSD echoes the 2003 events in Oakland, California. In 2000, the School Board appointed Dennis Chaconas Superintendent over the objection of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who had pushed a city hall official for the superintendent’s post. In 2003, Education Next Reported, “New software, installed so that the school district could better understand its finances, had uncovered a $40 million deficit from the previous year.”

Chaconas wanted a waiver from the state to allow use of existing construction funds to temporarily pay off the deficit. Instead State Schools’ Superintendent Jack O’Connell and influential Democratic politicians like State Senator Don Perata and Mayor Jerry Brown were instrumental in putting together a deal requiring the district to accept a $100 million loan, even though it was only $37 million in debt. Through apparent complicity with FCMAT, a state takeover of the district came about which gave Broad trained administrator Randolph Ward complete control.

The problem with a QUANGO is they carry out the political agenda of whoever is in power. An article in the Black Agenda Report stated,

“FCMAT did “hit” jobs for anyone willing to pay. Brown paid Tom Henry to prevent Oakland from solving its fiscal problem. FCMAT lobbied the State Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, the former Democratic Assemblyman from Alameda, to rule that Oakland’s plan to borrow construction funds was a violation of state and local law.” (Tom Henry was FCMAT CEO)

FCMAT is still draining money from Oakland. Former Oakland School District Public Information Officer, Ken Epstein writes,

“State appropriation for FCMAT in 2018-19 was about $6.3 million, plus the fees school districts are required to pay for the “aid” provided by FCMAT staff. This past school year, the district paid FCMAT and the county $1.4 million to oversee OUSD.”

“… The district loan payments are $6 million a year until 2026. The $100 million loan was spent unilaterally by the state Receiver Ward with no input from the community.”

In December 2018, FCMAT CEO Michael Fine accused SUHSD of the felonious offense of covering up bad financial information with no evidence. At the same time his team moved in to perform a forensic audit of Sweetwater’s finances. To this date no evidence of criminal malfeasance has been presented and no forensic audit has been conferred.

That has not stopped Will Huntsberry and the Voice of San Diego from running banner headlines like “State Investigators Say There’s Evidence of a Financial ‘Cover-Up’ in Sweetwater” and linking to these allegations repeatedly throughout the last year.

Another Huntsberry headline claims, “Docs, Interviews Show Sweetwater Officials Ignored Budget Warnings.” This article which Huntsberry repeatedly linked in latter reports says one unnamed employee went to Director of Finance Doug Martens and CFO Karen Michel to raise concerns. Huntsberry says both of them told the employee not to worry about it. Martens and Michel resigned from Sweetwater after the June 2018 budget was submitted. If there were legal or ethical problems with financial reports, they are the main suspects. Technically, the report is not false but it is purposefully misleading and sensationalized.

A Final Observation

I lived through the three superintendents’ tenures of Brand twice and Gandara once. They were perverse and unethical. At the same time, many Trustees serving on the board appeared to represent the construction industry more than parents, students or taxpayers. The present board and superintendent might not be perfect, but I do not believe they are corrupt. That is important.

At this point in time, billionaires throughout America are openly hostile toward public education including US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Many politicians who take money from them would be happy to facilitate the state taking over our school districts. It is in the best interest of the entire Sweetwater family to close ranks and solve this crisis before outside forces take advantage.

 

 

Sweetwater Schools Financial Problems Became Political Cudgel

9 Jan

By Thomas Ultican 1/19/2019

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?

Twitter: @tultican

Charter School Scourge Invading Sweetwater

1 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/1/2016

Chula Vista, California

On Monday evening (9/26/2016), the board of the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) had petitions from three charter schools; two requesting charter renewals and one for a new school. The two renewals are co-located charters that were started by SUHSD’s previous board (four of the five resigned as part of plea deals) and the new petition is for an independent study charter.

My first teaching job was in SUHSD as a paid certificated intern, teaching 3 out of a possible 5 classes a day while completing a master’s in education at UCSD. At my new job, I was soon regaled with stories of corruption in Sweetwater instigated by superintendent, Ed Brand. I never witnessed direct evidence of this widely and firmly held belief. Brand’s first stint as SUHSD Superintendent was from 1995 to 2005.

It was surprising in 2011, when the SUHSD Board brought Brand back. He had resigned as Superintendent of San Marcos Unified in 2006, less than a year after leaving Sweetwater to assume that position.

An article in the San Diego Union speculated that Brand was pushed out in San Marcos for unethical hiring and political practices. It says in part:

“… accounts have emerged of other things not in keeping with San Marcos Unified’s image. They include Brand’s ordering the hiring of a teacher, whose husband is a state education official, even though a panel of elementary school principals in charge of hiring voted not to offer her a job; a staff party for management aboard a 112-foot historic yacht; and two outsiders infusing cash into a school board candidate’s campaign.”

The state education official was Scott Himelstein then Deputy Secretary of Education/Chief of Staff and later Acting Secretary of Education for the State of California. In that capacity he served as chief policy advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on K-12 and higher education.

William D. Lynch was a source of outside money and according to the Union article cited above, “The High Spirits yacht, where Himelstein hosted the party, is owned by multimillionaire businessman William D. Lynch….” Lynch is an ally of Brand’s and of state Secretary of Education Alan Bersin, former superintendent of San Diego city schools. Lynch is also a philanthropist who runs the William D. Lynch Foundation for Children, which promotes literacy. Scott Himelstein is the foundation’s former president.

Given who he associates with it was not surprising to learn that Ed Brand promotes privatizing public schools. Upon returning to Sweetwater, he started working on a new charter school idea. His dream was to develop a k-16 charter system and with support from several long time cronies, he had a charter proposal written. Susan Mitchell who has an almost forty-year working relationship with Brand was the lead petitioner for the school originally named Ivy League Prep Academy but soon renamed Stephen H. Hawking Math and Science Charter School.

Like Mitchell, most of the stated charter school founders also had similar long term associations with Brand. Before the courts and voters replaced the SUHSD school board, Brand was able to open a second charter school named Stephen W. Hawking II Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math Charter. The schools were started as K-6 schools not through 16.

Co-Location

After the passage of proposition 13 in 1978, it became almost impossible to pass a bond issue for the construction of new school facilities in California. Amendments that gutted proposition 13’s 2/3 requirements for passing bond measures always looked popular initially but were soundly defeated come election day. In 2000, proposition 39 was narrowly written so it only reduced the requirement to pass school bonds and it required a 55% majority. A big loud political battle ensued but proposition 39 prevailed.

The charter school industry was able to slip a clause into proposition 39 that required school districts to make any excess capacity available to charter schools. This crucial point was barely noticed and not debated publically at all.

Co-location is a very disruptive unsound education policy. As Gary Cohn reported in Huffington post:

 ‘“One of the difficult things about having a charter school co-located on a district public school campus is that . . . the two schools end up competing for those things that are necessary to provide a quality education for the students,’ says Robin Potash, an elementary school teacher and chair of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Proposition 39 Committee. ‘That includes competing for the same students.”’

 In a July 10, 2015 article for La Prensa, Susan Lazzaro wrote:

“Community advocate Maty Adato asked the Sweetwater Union High School board a provocative charter school question at the June 22 board meeting. Trustees were deliberating on the renewal of facility contracts for Stephen Hawking charters I & II. The charters are for grades K-6 and Adato wanted to know if Sweetwater, a 7 -12 district, must give up unused classroom space to a K-6 charter.”

This is a question that seems bound for the courts because besides being bad policy, in order for this co-location mandate to be hidden in proposition 39, the law had to be poorly written. Lazzaro also noted a question from one of the five new board members, Paula Hall, “What happens, she asked, if the charter schools want more of our classroom space?” Another question without an answer.

Hawking I is co-located with Castle Park Middle School and Hawking II is co-located with Southwest Middle School. This is a clear illustration of the irrationality of the charter school movement from the standpoint of the taxpayer. In these two campuses there are four administrations doing the job that two administrations did 5 years earlier. The charter school movement is driving up the education cost per student which means either class sizes must increase or school taxes must increase; probably both.

In addition, taxpayers within the school district’s boundaries obligated themselves with bonds and other taxes to pay for these schools. Now, the buildings have been partially taken out of public control and their elected representatives no longer have legal authority to represent constituent interests.

The charter school movement puts tax dollars outside of democratic control with little accountability. Even with strict public accountability, malfeasance and criminality occur. It should come as no surprise that fraud and abuse are escalating in this low accountability charter school era.

A fundamental charter school theory postulates that elected representatives developed emasculating education code depriving public schools of the opportunity for innovation and improvement. Charter schools freed from accountability promised to untie this Gordian knot and market forces were expected to drive improvement. After 20 years, we see that charter schools are better at marketing than public schools but only rarely match the public school teaching prowess. For the first time nationally, education progress appears to have slowed with the rise of charter schools.

pisa-2000-to-2012

Independent Study Charter

 Carol Burris, the Executive Director of National Public Education is currently publishing a series of articles about the charter school movement. In the second installment carried by the Washington Post she writes about independent study charters.

“Although the original intent of the independent charters may well have been to scoop up at-risk kids and give them a second chance, the lack of criteria for student placement, along with inadequate regulations have led to obvious abuses. There are now far too many independent learning charter schools whose operators, some with no background or expertise in education, make substantial salaries, ….”

The third charter school petition at Monday’s school board meeting was for a proposed new independent study charter, ACATL Leadership Academy. Their Facebook page describes ACATL’s vision:

“ACATL Leadership Academy’s (ALA) mission is to create an educational system that ensures social justice by acknowledging, understanding and healing institutionalized racism, poverty, and marginalization.

“ALA will be a non-classroom based 9-12 grade charter high school within the Sweetwater Union High School District, and will be a reed in our community known for its innovation, flexibility and strength.

“ALA will serve students 14 thru 22 years of age and will set a goal of recapturing students who have left the traditional school system. ALA will partner with students, parents and family (relatives), and community organizations to address social justice issues our youth encounter in San Ysidro, California – the San Diego International Border region of the United States.”

 This sounds great, however, taxpayers have already established Learning Centers at every high school in the SUHSD.

The public school system also provides an Adult School in San Ysidro  which is an opportunity local taxpayers are providing for “recapturing students who have left the traditional school system.” Now taxpayers are being asked to compete with themselves and support yet another facility with no real needs assessment.

In other words, publicly financed schools are already performing the same function ACATL proposes with the advantage of having highly trained experienced psychologists, councilors and certificated teachers working with students. This request for taxpayer money to be taken from Sweetwater schools to finance someone’s heartfelt dream makes little sense, but California’s charter school law pretty much guarantees ACATL will get a charter.

Carrol Burris in the article I cited above also spoke to the profit motive of these kind of schools:

“In addition, running independent learning centers can be very lucrative. One of San Diego County’s largest networks of independent learning centers is the Altus Institute. It advertises on billboards and runs ads in movie theaters and on television.  Altus operates Audeo Charter, Audeo Charter II, the Charter School of San Diego and Laurel Academy. It has a total K-12 enrollment of about 3,000 students and takes in tens of millions of dollars in state and federal revenue. Like Learn4Life, its learning centers are located in malls and office buildings. Its younger students are home-schooled.

“In 2014 compensation for Altus Institute President Mary Bixby was $371,160 — exceeding the total pay plus benefits of the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District that serves nearly 130,000 students. Bixby is a board member of the charters, a full-time employee of one of the schools and also receives compensation for being “on-loan” to two other Altus schools. Such obvious conflicts of interest would be illegal in a public school.”

 Segregation by Choice

Last year a new charter school, Imperial Beach Charter, opened up next door to my high school. A local resident remarked to me, “the people west of 13th street don’t want their kids going to school with those kids at Mar Vista Academy.”

A blogger going by the moniker educationrealist posted this observation:

“I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.)”

 I recently reviewed Mercedes Schneider’s new book, School Choice. On page 22 she writes:

“Thus, what is clear about tuition grants, scholarships, or grants-in-aid, and the history of American public education is that these were tools used to preserve segregation. There it is: The usage of choice for separating school children into those who are ‘desirable’ and those who are not.”

This following table shows the demographic difference between the Mar Vista Academy (the public school) and Imperial beach charter.

School Hispanic or Latino White not Hispanic English Learners Free & Reduced Price Meals
Imperial Beach Charter 514 (59%) 250 (29%) 160 (18 %) 544 (62%)
Mar Vista Academy 714 (82%) 45 (5%) 277 (32 %) 679 (78%)

Conclusions:

Too often, charter schools are just rouges to make taxpayers finance private schools.

Charter schools have not shown significant educational improvements and they come with significant risks. Last year the Center for Media and Democracy reported:

“Nearly 200 charters have closed in California, nearly one of every five that have opened. Their failures have included stunning tales of financial fraud, skimming of retirement funds, and financial mismanagement, material violations of the law, massive debt, unsafe school conditions, lack of teacher credentials, failure to conduct background checks, terrible academic performance and test results, and insufficient enrollment.”

In other words, many charter schools are unstable and they have shut down with no notice even mid-way through a school year.

Charter schools increase the cost of education because of the required redundant administration for the same number of students and private sector administrative incomes are normally much higher than public employment rates.

All of the charter requests to SUHSD should be denied, but under present law if that happens either the county or the state will grant the charter. Past time for an immediate moratorium on new charter schools in California. Unwinding this unstable costly charter school system will benefit students and taxpayers.

The charter school industry wasn’t an organic development. Politicians and their wealthy masters created it with massive incentives. The federal government is spending billions on promoting charters plus foundations such as the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Edith and Eli Broad Foundation and the Fisher Foundation provide unimaginably large sums of money toward these privatization efforts yearly. If the elites succeed in destroying and monetizing our public education system, the opportunities for middle and working class people will significantly diminish. Just look at Detroit to see what the future holds for the poor.

The charter school movement is undemocratic and irrational. It needs to end.

Twitter: @tultican