Friday, October 23, 2015

[Fresno County] School district responds to report

Grand jury suggests superintendent used district money for meals, tech, travel

Investigations by independent parties confirmed that the Fresno county grand jury report released was largely accurate.
This was confirmed during a special board meeting held on Oct. 13 and Oct. 15, where the investigators presented their findings to the board and public. The reports from the investigators were made available to the public.
The district is required to respond to the grand jury report’s recommendations by Monday, Oct. 19.  There are 15 recommendations including setting up a system of fiscal checks and balances and creating new policies regarding contracts and nepotism.
“Overall the grand jury had it pretty right,” said John Gray, president of School Services of America who was hired by the district for the investigation.
“Most everything in this is true,” said another investigator who worked on the case.
The Oct. 13 meeting was attended by residents, school administrators and staff, parents and other members of the public. The atmosphere was mostly somber with few comments from the public, and the occasional gasps and shake of heads as investigators went down the list of  transgressions.
The grand jury report blasted the Parlier Unified School District superintendent, administrators and board of trustees for a variety of transgressions including excessive spending habits including meals, travels and contracts with vendors.
Investigators found that many of the meals and the travel were either not documented with receipts, or labeled as “team building” or “supplies,” with little evidence of deliverable.
The report also criticized the district for lack of transparency with board meetings, and overstaffing administrators for a district where student population actually declined.
As a result of the report, PUSD Superintendent Gerardo Alvarez was placed on leave of absence by the board.
After the report was released, the district hired Gray and his team, and separately private investigator Chris Reynolds investigate the report. The Fresno County Office of Education tapped the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to conduct a separate investigation. The results of that investigation have yet to be released.
Gray said he was confident that FCMAT would do a comprehensive job. He had initially suggested that FCMAT conduct the entire investigation as he said he already had a full plate of projects, but the district wanted a thorough investigation.
“My impression is they (the district) really wanted to do it right,” he said.
Gray and Matt Phillips, also of School Services of California, Inc., specifically investigated the financial aspects of the report while Chris Reynolds focused on the personnel side.
Here are some of their key findings from School Services of California:
• There is no evidence that the two trips to Harvard University in 2014 — costing the district nearly $100,000 and involving the Superintendent, trustees and key administrators, benefitted student performance. According to the report, Edward Lucero, the acting superintendent, Lou Saephan, assistant superintendent, and current board members, Jackie Garcia-Escoto, Edgar Pelayo and Parlier high principal Alan Macedo attended the second trip. After the Oct. 13 meeting Saephan, assistant superintendent, said during the meeting that the trip was very helpful including gaining knowledge from districts around the country. The program included observing actual classroom instruction in “instructional round” style.
• The district, especially the superintendent, spent district money to hold meetings at restaurants when they could have been held at the district building at no cost. Examples included a $204.44 dinner at Fleming’s Steak House in San Diego.
•Administrative regulations, including for that regarding travel claims are vague; twenty-two out of 64 transactions investigators reviewed had no itemized receipt or no receipt.
• The Superintendent’s credit limit is $5,000, and but in January 2015 the Superintendent — without notifying the Business Department or receiving board approval — opened another credit card with a $50,000 limit. Card activity saw a sharp rise from over $10,000 in purchases from Apple, the Harvard trip and other meeting expenses. Numerous expenses did not have receipts.  
• The Sunshine Club fund, launched in July 2013 with $2,850 in employee contributions, was meant to pay for gifts or birthday cards for district employees. The Superintendent used the fund to reimburse himself for $1,109 in “meeting supplies.” This included $464.88 for a one-night stay at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley. The Napa trip included Alvarez and his wife, and former board member Mary Helen Villanueva and her husband. Alvarez told investigator Chris Reynolds that the trip was for “team building” with Villanueva. There wasn’t evidence that Villaneuva knew that her expenses were paid for by the Sunshine Club fund. 
• Despite a decline in student enrollment since a peak of 4,321 students in the 2006-07 academic year the district has grown the number of administrators. Some positions duplicated each other.
• Legal costs skyrocketed 300 percent from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, in great part due to the costs related to the disciplinary actions in the aftermath of the grand jury report.
• The district spent an estimated $60,000 in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 for parents to send their children to schools outside of the district.
• Parlier Unified underperforms compared to surrounding districts. According to the data provided, 22.2 percent qualify for University of California entrance compared to a statewide average of 41.9 percent.
The data according to Rafael Iniguez, PUSD’s Career Technical Education Director, is not accurate since it is limited to UC. In 2015, 42 percent of Parlier high seniors were eligible for university admission. Iniguez added that the data bases used by the grand jury report and Parlier High School are different.
“There are issues in the way data is being tagged, so there could be a big margin for error,” Iniguez said. Gray concurred with Iniguez and said that indeed there could be margin for error by using different data bases.
Parlier Unified’s seven schools serve 3,400 students in seven schools with 416 employees. About 99 percent of the 3,400 students in the Parlier Unified School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
After the meeting, Lucero said the presentations had, “no surprises.” 
“I thought both presentations were very well presented, I thought Chris Reynolds was very thorough and very informative,” said Lucero.
October 20, 2015
The Reedley Exponent
By Amy Wu

[Napa County] Letter: Don’t make disaster plans on the fly

Blog note: this letter refers to a 2008 grand jury report.
I was pleased to see your preparedness article “Napa could be lifeboat in a major Bay Area quake” (Oct. 13).
The “lifeboat” analogy is an excellent reminder of what Napa County’s role may be in the event of a major Bay Area disaster. A lifeboat that may very well be swamped if we do not prepare in advance.
Your readers may be interested to know that in May of 2008, the Napa County grand jury, in a report on the Napa County Office of Emergency Services, used this same lifeboat analogy to identify the need to prepare for the possibility of a mass influx of refugees ("Grand Jury calls on county to prepare for the worst," May 17, 2008).
The grand jury specifically recommended that “the impact of a significant influx of Bay Area disaster refugees into Napa County be evaluated and specific plans prepared to deal with this eventuality.”
As usual, the county’s response was “underwhelming,” failing to agree with the grand jury’s recommendation and noting that "planning for the potential impact must be in cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions … we are awaiting the Association of Bay Area Government’s (ABAG) Recovery Plan Toolkit.”
Well, the ABAG Toolkit was issued in 2012, and updated in 2013. The Napa County Hazard Mitigation Plan was updated in 2013. Both of these documents focus on local response to a disaster (primarily earthquake), which is their primary function. I was unable to find the “county shelter plan drafted in 2008,” referenced in the article, but shelter is only a portion of the overall planning required (e.g., medical care, mental patient care, law enforcement).
The county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan continues to ignore the “lifeboat” issue. We had a small glimpse of the impact of refugees with the recent Lake County fires, not to mention the ongoing, horrific Syrian refugee disaster. Wouldn’t it be better to have concrete plans in place rather than to make arrangements “on the fly”?
October 18, 2015
Napa Valley Register
Letter-to-the-editor by John K. Norris, Napa

[Orange County] Irvine council debates, then mostly sides with grand jury on Great Park report

In a formal response to an Orange County Superior Court judge, the city of Irvine mostly agrees with the findings and recommendations of the grand jury report "Irvine Great Park: Legacy of Hubris?" released June 30.
With only three exceptions, City Council members agreed wholly or in part with the 14 findings and eight recommendations but there was some heated debate on some of the issues.
City Manager Sean Joyce and his staff were charged with drafting the recommended responses to be submitted in an official letter to Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders. Options of agree, disagree, or further consideration were offered by staff for council consideration.
With the Great Park audit itself now under scrutiny by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento, Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) and former assemblyman and state Sen. Dick Wagner both attended the meeting. Each voiced support for the audit findings and the current Republican council majority during public comments.
"I saw both an audit and a grand jury report that essentially say the same things and essentially confirms, in my mind, that there has been some problem and there has been some mismanagement," Wagner said afterward.
Councilwoman Beth Krom, the only Democrat among a 4-1 Republican council majority, used her time in discussion to continue disputing the legitimacy of the audit and the grand jury report before ultimately excusing herself from the dais.
"I think it's hubris on the part of the grand jury to essentially take information that was in the audit, which was largely what they cite and attribute it to Aleshire & Wynder (the legal firm hired to conduct major portions of the Great Park audit)," Krom said.
Councilwoman Christina Shea responded to Krom's remarks saying, "We can sit here and say it's all political, people are being personally attacked because oh, they're really nice, they did nothing wrong. Those just aren't the facts. We can argue in circles trying to make a statement that nothing bad happened, but $250 million is gone and we don't have much to (show) for it."
When the council got around to debating the grand jury responses, the most passionate disagreement occurred between Joyce and Mayor Steven Choi.
One finding the grand jury submitted was that "an inordinate amount of funds" was spent on public relations, free events, and the Great Park balloon. Choi objected strongly to the staff-recommended response stating only partial agreement with the finding.
"That should say 'agree,'" Choi said loudly. Joyce responded that the recommendation for partial agreement protects the current council from some of the broad implications of the excess spending referred to in the report. Choi eventually won the argument emphasizing the word "inordinate" applied by the grand jury.
Shea, the chairwoman of the Great Park Board, resisted the recommendation that the city consider dissolving the board. Shea argued there are city regulations that may conflict with decisions made by the board as it applies to corporate participation in park development.
Councilwoman Lynn Schott stated her view that the board should be dissolved, calling it redundant, as it consists of the same members of the City Council only in a different configuration.
Ultimately the remaining council members voted 3-0 approving the responses with stipulation that the dissolution of the board needed further analysis. Krom left the proceedings before the vote and Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway was absent from the meeting.
October 16, 2015
Los Angeles Times
By Matt Morrison

Ventura County Grand Jury Responds to Reports

The Ventura County Grand Jury has finalized its 2014-2015 year by posting responses received to the twelve reports it issued during the year. The Grand Jury is mandated by the California State Constitution and various laws to serve as a voice of the people and a conscience of the community - a "government watchdog."
The Consolidated Final Report included the following individual reports: Elections and Polling Place Observations, Ventura County Green Procurement Policy, City of Oxnard and Its Adjoining Agricultural and Business Water Resources, Port Hueneme Police Department Public Records Request Process, County Responsibility for Sidewalks, Countywide Bicycle Safety, Detention Facilities and Related Law Enforcement Issues, Panhandling and Charity Soliciting in the City of Thousand Oaks, County Project Management - A Case Study, Foster Care and Adoption Process in Ventura County, Ventura County Electronic Health Record Implementation Risks, and Ventura County Hiring Processes.
The reports resulted primarily from complaints submitted by residents of the County. Each report contains recommendations for improvements in government operations. Certain government officials are required to respond to the recommendations and others are requested to respond. The above reports with their responses, as well as those of prior years, may be accessed on the Grand Jury website:
In addition, members of the Grand Jury Speakers Bureau are available to give talks/presentations to interested groups in the community. Foreperson, Janice Feingold, may be contacted at (805) 477-1600.
October 16, 2015
Ventura edhat
By Ventura County Grand Jury