Valley News -

The TVUSD board should demand accuracy, integrity, accountability

 

Last updated 5/23/2019 at 10:26pm



Temecula Valley Unified School District is fond of touting the school district’s top academic ranking in Riverside County as evidence of a well-run district; however, being the beneficiary of a community with the lowest percentage of disadvantaged youth in the county virtually guarantees the top ranking and says nothing objective about the discretionary aspects of school district management.

Top management struggles mightily with fiscal accuracy, truthfulness and compliance with the law. During the 2016-2017 school year, TVUSD was one of only 3% of California school districts with a budget lacking a positive certification. The district’s multi-year projection from March 2017 showed an ending fund balance of $3.1 million for June 2019. Now the district is projecting an ending fund balance of $51 million for June 2019. While TVUSD’s erred by $48 million, Lake Elsinore’s projection during the same time period was off by less than $2 million.

Putting forth wildly inaccurate financial projections is not uncommon under Superintendent Timothy Ritter’s leadership and the consequences have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

TVUSD used inaccurate financial projections to force the closure of Keegan Academy, an academically successful and fiscally responsible charter school. District administration shortened the Keegan charter by eight months, from a June expiration to an October expiration, without school board approval and in violation of state law. They reported to the board that Keegan was fiscally mismanaged – a conclusion that directly contradicts all of the school’s annual audits. Next, they forced Keegan’s director to sign a punitive new contract to extend the charter to the board-approved June expiration date. That contract was never approved by the board, yet was used by district administration to force Keegan to close.

Among other things, that new contract prohibited Keegan from seeking a renewal of its charter and transferred financial responsibility for a special education lawsuit from TVUSD to Keegan. TVUSD spent two and one-half years, guided by attorney Sarah Sutherland, pursuing indemnity from Keegan in federal court based on the transfer of liability in that unlawful new contract.

Keegan’s director, when presented with the new contract and threat of an early closure, sought guidance from attorney Sutherland, who was representing both TVUSD and Keegan in the early stages of that special education lawsuit. Sutherland, who wrote the new contract, pressured Keegan’s director to sign which means that Sutherland was representing and working against Keegan at the same time and on the same issue.

Sutherland wrote in a federal court pleading that she never represented Keegan, but here’s what she told a judge in the Office of Administrative hearings in the earlier stages of that lawsuit: “I, Sarah Sutherland, am representing Keegan because Keegan is a school of the district for special education.”

If she’s not afraid to lie to the federal court, she’s certainly not afraid to lie to the school board.

Sutherland also verified in a federal court pleading that the original Keegan charter expired in June, not eight months earlier in October. The June expiration date is also verified in writing by TVUSD’s former superintendent, former assistant superintendent and the clear wording in the charter which said it “expires upon completion of the school’s third year of operations.”

Ritter, who was deputy superintendent at the time of Keegan’s approval and was part of the district’s team that evaluated the charter, certainly knew this information as well.

The board, rather than exercising oversight, has actively facilitated this fraud. Board President Kristi Rutz-Robbins wrote in The Valley News, “We accepted the charter’s signed agreement to close the charter in a public board meeting...”

However, no such agreement exists in the board record. I submitted a public records request seeking the agenda and minutes to which that agreement is attached. What I got back was a cease and desist letter from TVUSD attorney Scott Danforth.

Board member Sandy Hinkson told me in a letter that my concerns are “stale,” at a time when TVUSD and Keegan were actively engaged in litigation in federal court. I disagree with Hinkson. I think that a concerted pattern of misconduct, dishonesty and lawlessness funded by the school district is never stale.

Two years after being forced to close, Keegan sought to reopen and submitted a new charter petition to TVUSD. The board did not allow Keegan to present or take questions, yet they allowed Sutherland and TVUSD’s charter school liaison, Scott Schaufele, to present a malicious and error-filled staff report and take questions. Allowing only one side to present is improper and inherently un-American. The board didn’t have one-sided hearings under the previous superintendent.

In addition to the staff report falsely claiming that Keegan was fiscally mismanaged, it also said that the school was educationally unsound. Ed Code has specific educational growth criteria for charter schools, and Keegan shattered the mark.

Keegan’s API growth target for the school’s final year was 5 points. The school improved by 61 points. It’s disappointing that TVUSD’s Educational Support Services Department, led by Deputy Superintendent Jodi McClay, allowed false information to be part of the staff report. To make matters worse, the board discussed the charter petition with staff and Sutherland in their closed session on the night of the vote. That’s a violation of Government Code 54950, the Brown Act, which is California’s open meeting law. Information sharing about the merits of a charter petition with staff and counsel is not a protected closed session item. The agenda for that night lists “possible litigation,” although there was no actual, pending or threatened litigation with Keegan at that time.

Last summer I submitted documentation to the board showing multiple improprieties and violations of the law in TVUSD’s oversight of Keegan. The board’s response was to insert language into the contracts of each member of upper management stating that if they face legal jeopardy relating to their employment, the school district will pay their legal bills. This shows that the board is more interested in protecting a few administrators than protecting the district.

I forwarded my documentation to the Riverside County Grand Jury. School district representatives deceived the Grand Jury into believing that Keegan was closed due to unfulfilled safety concerns and failure to submit a timely renewal petition. Safety concerns are not mentioned in any of the closure documentation and the new contract prohibited Keegan from seeking renewal of its charter. TVUSD lied to the Grand Jury.

Kristi Rutz-Robbins is the only board member that has been there for the entirety of this ordeal. Her actions on this issue show that she is either dishonest or has no clue about what’s actually happening. Both scenarios are highly problematic.

The bottom line is that TVUSD and Keegan have been harmed by the concerted activity of Sutherland, an attorney who tells different versions of the truth in different venues, and Schaufele, the failed former principal of Temecula Valley High School and longtime friend of Ritter. In addition to all the money that TVUSD has spent on this adventure, the unlawful closure of Keegan also meant that hundreds of thousands of dollars of startup federal government grant money awarded to Keegan was squandered. The board should actively seek the identity of the school district official who directed the kill at all costs attack on Keegan. That person should be held accountable for misappropriation of public funds, which is a serious felony. It’s time to restore integrity and accountability in TVUSD.

Rob Clause

Temecula resident

 

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