School District's Bond Controversy Reveals Rising Concern About 'Pay-to-Play'
In the space of just a few months, state officials have suddenly turned their attention to a problem in the public-educational shadows: insider dealing among California school district officials and outside vendors.
In a January opinion, state Attorney General Kamala Harris concluded that school officials had become too cozy with companies that stand to benefit from passage of high-ticket school bonds.
“A school or community college district violates California constitutional and statutory prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure by contracting with a person or entity for services related to a bond election campaign if the pre-election services may be fairly characterized as campaign activity,” Harris wrote.
In July, California Treasurer John Chiang warned districts about the same problem. And in August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2116, creating financial oversight committees for the spending of bond revenue.
Despite the scrutiny, companies looking to do business with the Capistrano Unified School District are major contributors to the district’s massive $889 million bond, Measure M on the November ballot.
Contributors include construction, engineering and architecture firms. Documents first published by Dawn Urbanek, a South County activist, show Tilden-Coil Constructors gave $25,000; $15,000 came from WLC Architects; computer giant Dell gave $4,000 to the effort.
Some of the contributors have already worked for the district. WLC Architects designed the Capistrano Valley High School Performing Arts Center. School officials approved five payments to WCL Architects (total: $43,781.03) during a September 14 meeting.
At the center of the controversy: CUSD’s top administrator, Superintendent Kirsten Vital.
Vital ran into similar trouble at her job in the Alameda Unified School District. Her highest-profile collision in Alameda involved an Oakland-based political consulting firm with multiple ties to the district. That firm worked for Vital to promote the district’s Measure H Bond in 2008. The next year, the school board appointed the firm’s two partners to a Master Plan Advisory Group that year. That same year, Vital paid the firm $14,000 for “design and programming of AUSD website redesign.” In the same year, Vital created a webmaster position and hired AUSD Board Trustee Mike McMahon’s daughter Rebecca McMahon to fill the position. Her salary, depending on tenure, ranged from $41,000 to $51,000 per year.
At the same time, Vital faced a series of pay cuts in Alameda. She earned $273,908 in 2012; dropped to $262,823 in 2013, and to $214,031 in 2014. In three years her pay dropped 22%.
Interestingly, Joseph M. Farley, her predecessor at CUSD, rode a more dramatic financial downhill. Documents provided by Transparent California show Farley earning $287,073 in 2013. In 2014, he made just $203,773, a one-year drop of 29%.
Vital’s original CUSD 2014-2018 contract gave her an annual salary of $305,000 – a huge bump over her Alameda salary (and Farley’s in CUSD). She also received a $15,000 relocation assistance stipend. That four-year deal was amended after just two years, in 2016. The new contract, extended through 2020, gave her an annual salary of $319,244 and another bonus, this one a $14,244 “discretionary payment.”
Conor McGarry is a graduate of California State University–Dominguez Hills, and a Journalism Fellow at California Policy Center.