On November 18, 2007 two former Davis Joint Unified School Board Members Joan Sallee and Marty West published on op-ed in the Davis Enterprise to purportedly respond “to the many accusations the 2006 and 2007 school board majority has made about financial mismanagement of the Davis Joint Unified School District.” For reasons not completely clear, they decided to air a large amount of “dirty laundry” in public.
The Joan Sallee/Marty West article purportedly responds to an earlier article from October 7, 2007 authored by then-current board members Jim Provenza and Tim Taylor. The Jim Provenza/ Tim Taylor article focused on the hiring of Bruce Colby as their Deputy Superintendent for Business Services, more transparency, realistic and understandable budgets, and prioritizing critical needs and requirements. It is not clear from reading that article of the perceived need by Ms. Sallee and Ms. West to respond.
They waited until the parcel tax was safely passed by the voters and then proceeded to open a can of worms. The Vanguard responded with an article on November 20, 2007. A quick perusal of the facts revealed that the op-ed by Marty West and Joan Sallee was fraught with misrepresentations and inaccuracies. During the course of the Vanguard’s evaluation it became clear that this was more of an effort to vindicate the reputations of former Superintendent David Murphy and former Chief Business Officer (CBO) Tahir Ahad. Adding fuel to the fire was the revelation that Marty West had become an employee of Tahir Ahad at his education consultancy business, known as, Total School Solutions, as a senior consultant in employment law. This and other new revelations spawned a follow-up article on November 21, 2007, “Op-Ed Opens a Can of Worms.”.
While many in the community have knowledge about what happened under Tahir Ahad regarding his business, Total School Solutions, and the fact he hired many DJUSD employees to work for him, some even while they also worked for him at DJUSD, the fact remains that there was never any sort of comprehensive reporting about just what occurred and whether any laws were broken.
These revelations that were uncovered on November 20 and November 21, 2007 led to a large number of members of the public to come forward with further information. The Vanguard was approached by numerous community members, employees of DJUSD, and spoke with dozens of individuals in the course of what has become a three month investigation. The Vanguard also sought out to speak with several key players including Board President Sheila Allen, Board Vice President Gina Daleiden, former school board members Keltie Jones and Jim Provenza, and former Superintendent David Murphy. Superintendent Murphy spoke with the Vanguard at length off the record. Board members Sheila Allen and Gina Daleiden spoke to the Vanguard on the record.
The findings that we shall report in a three-part series are staggering and troubling. In short, even members on the board and in the school district during these times were not fully aware of what went on and depths of the operations.
The first part of this series will look at the conflict of interest inherent in any situation where a public official is using his public position to further his private business interests. The second part will look at the ramifications of that arrangement for the district. Finally, the third part will examine efforts by the district. Successful efforts I will add, to make changes and ensure that the district is on much more sound footing in terms of its fiscal policy, even as it struggles with declining enrollment and state budget cuts.
Part I—Conflict of Interest
On June 17, 1999 the Davis Joint Unified School Board voted 4-1 to hire Tahir Ahad as the Deputy Superintendent for Business Services. Joan Sallee and Marty West were joined by John Munn and Ruth Asmundson in supporting the hiring of Mr. Ahad. Tahir Ahad was leaving a similar position with the Vallejo School District.
Those four members spoke of Tahir Ahad in glowing terms. The Davis Enterprise quotes Ruth Asmundson as saying “We raided Vallejo to get him. Vallejo is a bigger district… we need to provide compensation that is attractive.” Joan Sallee and Marty West both spoke in glowing terms of the hire of Tahir Ahad.
However, there was one member of the school board that voted against the hiring of Tahir Ahad and that was Don Saylor. What Don Saylor noted in his dissent were the seeds for what would happen under Tahir Ahad over the next seven years as CBO of Davis Joint Unified. None of what happened was an accident. Instead, it was all laid out in Tahir’s initial contract.
It was a highly unusual contract that contained several factors that would enable and permit Tahir Ahad to set up his own side business.
First, the standard contract called for 224 work days; however, Tahir Ahad was only required to work for 205 work days and he did so receiving substantially more money per day than his predecessor Tim Larin.
Board member Don Saylor pointed this out during the proceedings.
As reported by the Enterprise:
“I can’t support lessening the work year for a senior position… At the same time, the compensation package is being raised.”
The Enterprise continued:
“When Ahad’s package of $104,210 a year is calculated over 205 workdays instead of 224, his compensation will go from $440 per day to $508 per day.”
Or as Saylor pointed out the reduction in work days along with the size of the contract resulted in “an increase of 15 percent over the rate that was advertised.”
This would be the highest base daily rate in the district of any employee. This was arranged by Superintendent David Murphy. Concurrently, Murphy’s salary quickly increased greatly over the next few years.
This lessened workload would enable Tahir Ahad to spend more time building up his privately owned company. As one former employee told me, he would have all Mondays off from district work and part of Tuesdays as well, suggesting that the amount of time he actually worked for the district may have been considerably less than the reported 205.
Specifically written into Mr. Ahad’s contract was a provision that enabled him to seek outside professional activities. “This Agreement shall not be construed to preclude the Deputy Superintendent-Business Services from undertaking outside professional activities for compensation, including consulting, speaking, and writing…”
Again, this was not accidental and it marks a clear departure from the contract of his successor, Tim Larin. Mr. Larin’s contract required prior approval by the Superintendent and it expressly stated that other activities could not “conflict” with the performance of his duties under this agreement.
This was noted at the time by Board Member Saylor who said that he was troubled that Ahad was “intending to supply some of his time as a consultant” for other districts.
Mr. Ahad’s contract also allowed for him to have full authority to organize, reorganize, and arrange “any of the Business Office’s administrative, management, and supervisory staff.” This will become important as we discuss some of the management methods that Tahir Ahad exhibited as he often organized and hired those loyal to him while pushing away those who were more skeptical of his activities.
One final point that arose at the time was the existence of a pending sexual harassment suit from Vallejo where Tahir Ahad was working as their CBO. Two employees alleged wrongful termination by Ahad and one alleged that he had sexual relations with her and then offered her preferential treatment to keep quiet. This woman was in her mid 20s at the time.
Eventually Tahir Ahad would prevail by a 9-3 decision in a jury trial. However, it is somewhat surprising that some of the members of the board were not more concerned about this case at the time. Moreover, as we shall see, the case and verdict were not entirely insubstantial for the district, despite the ultimate verdict in favor of Mr. Ahad.
Tahir Ahad was hired by Davis Joint Unified School District to begin in July of 1999. According to his “Statement of Economic Interests” filed in early 2000, on October 3, 1999 (just over three months after being hired by DJUSD) he would form what was then known as Total Business Solutions (TSS), at his residence in Fairfield, CA. Mr. Ahad’s business was eventually renamed Total School Solutions.
For most of the next three years, few knew about this business arrangement; however, he did disclose its existence in his Form 700 Disclosures in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Word finally began to trickle through to the community and some on the board that this company was not only in existence, but that Tahir Ahad was working at a business on the side, and he was hiring district employees who were also working at both the district and for Total School Solutions (TSS).
As current Board Member Gina Daleiden told me in response to a more general question about conflicts of interest, one of the cores of conflict of interest policy is that “you should not use your public position for private gain.” While Ms. Daleien was not specifically speaking about Tahir Ahad, this is precisely what happened during his tenure as CBO of Davis Joint Unified. What we see during the course of Tahir Ahad’s tenure as CBO at Davis Joint Unified is that in effect he used the district to start up his business. In so doing, he began to blur the lines between his own private business and the school district which operates on public money.
It was school board election time in 2003. Keltie Jones had been appointed to fill a vacancy left by John Poulos’ exit. Now she was running for re-election. Running in the Davis Enterprise on September 28, 2003 was a disclosure that she had accepted money from Tahir Ahad, and the wife of Tahir Ahad as well as Total Business Solutions. There was a brief outcry over the prospect of a conflict in receiving money from a school administrator. Keltie Jones returned the donation from Tahir Ahad, but kept the other two donations. It was at this point, that Total Business Solutions had become identified publicly in Davis for the first time and people inside the educational community began to connect it to Tahir Ahad.
Total School Solutions grew slowly over time. By July of 2005, there were six directors listed on the Total School Solutions website. All of them were DJUSD employees. The Vice President was Susan Lendway who worked as a secretary to the associate superintendent for DJUSD. Director of Business Development, Aaron Shonk had risen from a secretary to the superintendent to the new Director of Business Development. Henry Petrino was a facilities director for the district and was Director of Operations for TSS. Vern Weber was actually not a direct DJUSD employee; instead he was a longtime consultant who did enrollment projects. And the general counsel of TSS was Maggie Harmon who worked as a budget officer for DJUSD.
By December of 2005, TSS added Nancy Walker who had been a business director at DJUSD and two long time consultants to the DJUSD Lonnie Poindexter and Ajay Mohindra. In April of 2006, Steve Horowitz had been added to the staff of TSS. And right now, there are well over 20 employees at TSS, over half previously worked at DJUSD in some capacity or another. Most recent additions include Solveig Monson, Tina Burkhart, Marty West, and Laurel Clumpner who still works for DJUSD as Principal for the Adult School.
Tahir Ahad would eventually hire four of his former employees from Vallejo Joint Unified to work at Davis Joint Unified. All four of them eventually ended up working for Total Schools Solutions: Tina Burkhardt, Rey Reyes, Nancy Walker and Susan Lendway.
Of those employees who worked for both DJUSD and TSS at the same time, this report specifically examines three of them: Susan Lendway, Aaron Shonk, and Henry Petrino.
Susan Lendway was Tahir Ahad’s secretary at the Vallejo School District. According to her bio on the TSS webpage, she has been Vice President of the company almost from the start in 1999. Ms. Lendway was hired to the position of Division Assistant, a clerical position in 2001.
Susan Lendway was hired as the confidential secretary for the educational services associate superintendent. Mr. Ahad hired Ms. Lendway over a number of longtime employees who had also applied for the job. More startling is the fact that the position was advertised as having a salary range of $2,497 to $3,187 per month. Ms. Lendway was hired at a rate that was almost $700 higher than the top end of that pay schedule at $3,874 per month.
More serious still are implications that come out of Tahir Ahad’s sexual harassment trial. Recall that Davis Joint Unified hired Mr. Ahad knowing that he faced litigation from two of his employees at the Vallejo School District. In November of 2002, Jurors voted by 9-3 in favor of Mr. Ahad. Key to that verdict was testimony by other Valley School District employees that Mr. Ahad was elsewhere on the dates that he was purported to have had some of the encounters. One of those who testified on his behalf was Susan Lendway. Lendway according to court documents delivered some of the key testimony that eventually got Mr. Ahad acquitted. Just before the trial Susan Lendway had been given a district job paying about $8000 per year more than the job was advertised for.
Regardless of these implications, the hiring of Susan Lendway demonstrates the pitfalls of a conflict of interest. Total Business Solutions does not report making a tremendous amount of money in those first three or four years—in the range of $10,000 to $100,000 according to Mr. Ahad’s 700 Disclosures. It would be difficult to hire and maintain a staff with the amount of expertise and skill as the one that Tahir Ahad was able to hire in the formative years of his business.
By hiring TSS employees to DJUSD as he did with Susan Lendway, he was able to provide them with a stable salary and more importantly use the district to provide them with health and retirement benefits. In essence, Tahir Ahad was in fact using DJUSD personnel with their district salaries and benefits as a foundation and start up for his company, a company that would eventually earn him a substantial income.
Aaron Shonk is another of the early members of TSS. When Tahir Ahad was hired, Aaron Shonk was working for the district as an executive secretary to the superintendent. He was hired in January of 1996, but in November of 2000 he became Resource Enhancement Manager. Then in November of 2003 he was named Interim Director of Maintenance and Operations and finally for his last year, Director of Maintenance and Operations. At the same time, he was working for TSS as their Director of Business Development.
This arrangement illustrates yet another pitfall of a conflict of interest. When employees are being hired to work for an individual at two different places, lines get blurred. First, as explained earlier Tahir Ahad had in his contract a unique signature authority to be able to hire and move employees as he saw fit. That gave him the power to promote those employees that were favored. Some of that promotion may not be based on work done for the school district, but rather work done for Tahir Ahad himself at TSS. That creates an inherent conflict of interest where you can no longer assume that employees are being rewarded for the job done on behalf of the school district. Moreover, the employees are no longer loyal to the school district itself, but rather to their boss, Tahir Ahad.
The case of Henry Petrino leads us to another problem. Mr. Petrino was another of the early employees at TSS. As Director of Facilities Planning, it was Henry Petrino who filed for the state’s matching grants on the Montgomery Schools Project. We will talk more about this issue in the next installment, but for now, we need to note that Henry Petrino submitted two defective applications for state matching funds. He was the one who missed the 180-day deadline not once, but twice. The first application was dismissed out of hand because it did not include required information; the second was dismissed due to missing the 180-day deadline—by five months. That missed deadline cost the district roughly $4.5 million in matching funds and set off a whole chain of events. It took an extraordinary effort and staff time last summer to recoup that lost money.
Was Mr. Petrino working on a project for Total Schools Solutions when he was supposed to be working on grant applications? We don’t know, but that lack of knowledge is part of the problem.
The other part of the problem was that during the course of Tahir Ahad’s tenure, many of his TSS employees would leave the district to work full-time for TSS. However, some of them were actually brought back as paid consultants for DJUSD.
One example is a contract signed by Henry Petrino on October 14, 2004. He had retired from the school district on October 1, 2004, and was brought back less than two weeks later as a consultant making $58.71 per hour. He was designated as a facilities consultant. The initiating administrator on that contract was Tahir Ahad who signed off on the contract. This in itself appears to be a clear conflict of interest but the looming question is unanswered—did any of this money go to TSS or was this merely a personal contract as it appears on paper. I do not know the answer to that either way, but it is just one of a number of looming questions that occur when lines such as these get blurred.
Vern Weber was never an actual employee of Davis Joint Unified; however, he was a hired consultant who did projected enrollments. He in fact did the original projections for enrollments for the Best Uses of Schools Task Force that would eventually recommend closing Valley Oak. But due to problems with those projections, he was replaced by Davis Demographics whose projections according to the Davis Enterprise were considerably less gloomy in terms of future enrollment.
Vern Weber demonstrates another pitfall with this arrangement. Tahir Ahad is given wide berth in terms of who he can hire. So Tahir Ahad employs Vern Weber as a TSS consultant at the same time Mr. Weber is consulting for Davis Joint Unified.
Total School Solutions was at the same time competing for qualifying bids in other school districts around the state. One example was the Acton Agua Dulce School District in August of 2005. Vern Weber’s resume is listed in their bid. The fact that he worked for Davis Joint Unified from 1998 until the present (at that point) was cited among a list of qualifying previous consulting jobs. At the same time you see in October 12, 2005, David Murphy, Tahir Ahad and Vern Weber attending the first Best Uses of Schools Task Force Meeting as district staff.
This provides another example of Tahir Ahad using the positions that he has hired his employees in the district as a means to improve the marketability of his own company. We also see around the same time, his promotion of his company over the district at a California Schools Boards Association Meeting.
On December 1, 2005, Tahir Ahad sat on a panel discussing Fiscal and Facilities Planning. “Hear a discussion of the impacts on fiscal planning and the type of facilities planning that must occur to meet the demands and effects of changing enrollment.” He is then listed as Tahir Ahad. His title is not CBO of Davis Joint Unified, but rather “President, Total School Solutions.” One can ask whether this trip was taken at taxpayer expense, but even if it was not, here he was at a CSBA meeting promoting not the school district, but his own company.
Meanwhile in an April 11, 2006 press release, the CSBA announced a new partnership with TSS.
“The California School Boards Association last month signed an agreement with Total School Solutions of Fairfield, CA to offer Proposition 39 performance audits to school districts.”
The release goes on to quote Tahir Ahad:
“Unlike our competitors, our firm is comprised of active and retired school facilities and financial management professionals who understand school management and the pressures and challenges faced by a district’s governance team.”
Once again, the marketing of Davis Joint Unified’s employees was used by Mr. Ahad to help produce a potentially very lucrative partnership with the California School Boards Association.
In November of 2005, Sheila Allen, Gina Daleiden, and Tim Taylor were elected to the school board. Soon after their election, Tahir Ahad realized that he no longer had his three votes to remain as CBO. Jim Provenza and B.J. Klein had often been on the short end of 3-2 votes in an effort to make changes to district practices. Marty West, Joan Sallee, and Keltie Jones were a reliable voting bloc in support of both Tahir Ahad and David Murphy. They had been joined by BJ Klein to extend Murphy’s contract as their terms expired prior to the new school board trustees being sworn in December 2005.
Realizing that he no longer had the majority of the school board support, Tahir Ahad announced he would leave at the end of his contract which expired in June of 2006. He had promised to continue working for the district up until that point, but apparently he had not kept that promise. In fact page 81 of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistant Team (FCMAT) report makes note of this.
“The Chief Business Official position became vacant in February 2006. An interim CBO was hired but was told not to work on facilities accounting and funding, because the former CBO [Tahir Ahad] would do that. That apparently did not occur, and thus the area of facilities needs immediate attention.”
One of the first tasks that the new board turned to was creating a new and stronger conflict of interest policy.
According to Board Member Gina Daleiden California Education Code already prohibits some of the practices that the Vanguard has found to have occurred under Tahir Ahad.
“My understanding of the government code is that employees should not employ other district employees in outside businesses.”
California Government Code Section 1126 (a) reads:
“The officer or employee shall not perform any work, service, or counsel for compensation outside of his or her local agency employment where any part of his or her efforts will be subject to approval by any other officer, employee, board, or commission of his or her employing body.”
Unfortunately weaknesses in the district’s previous conflict of interest policy prevented the district from taking action. “Our understanding from our attorney is that the district could not enforce that government code without our own district conflict policy. So we enacted the policy and then we were able to enforce government code.”
The existing conflict of interest policy prior to 2006 merely required “designated employees shall file statements of economic interests with the Davis Joint Unified School District.” These statements were the FPPC Form 700. As weak as that was only the board members and superintendent were assigned level 1 disclosure. Those associate superintendents, director of fiscal services and high school principal were only required level 2 disclosures while consultants were not required disclosure at all.
Board President Sheila Allen told the Vanguard, “There was nothing illegal about our conflict of interest policy. But it wasn’t as strong as it could be.”
So the three new board members along with Jim Provenza moved to strengthen it. Ms. Allen said, “In particular, we were interested in the question about outside work for our current employees and what our legal abilities were to know about and to restrict them to our ability.”
It was this point that drew division with fellow board member Keltie Jones. In the Davis Enterprise article from October 15, 2006, Jones was quoted as saying that this policy “put the superintendent in the untenable situation of not having clear direction as to whether the board does not want people brought forward who work for Total School Solutions.” Keltie Jones argued that this policy was really aimed at TSS. “If this means ‘Don’t hire anyone who works for Tahir’s company,’ I want that out there.”
Keltie Jones was the lone no vote on the consultant conflict of interest policy when the policy came up for a vote. She argued that it put consultants potentially at a disadvantage to have to disclose their clients publicly.
Gina Daleiden on the other hand was forceful on this issue during a board meeting in May of 2006 when she addressed the issue of employee conflict of interest policy, she told the public that the legal requirement was the minimum not the limit of conflict policy.
“I am interested in establishing a policy for this Board that defines and clearly restricts conflicts of interests and commitment and builds the public trust. Conflict of interest is an emerging area of the law. What is defined as “legal” now is the minimum, it is the floor, and I want us to reach higher, closer to the ceiling. I want the public to be comfortable with our practices and those of our employees. I do not want the public to question relationships, motives, connections, and decisions. I DO want the public to be able to trust the people who serve their schools. We will need this as we address difficult situations facing our district. I want us to be more transparent and go beyond the minimum, much as we tell the children in our classrooms.”
She would tell the Vanguard in an interview last month, “I think the rule that we should all follow as public servants whether we are elected as public servants or whether you serve in a public position, is that you should not use your public position for private gain.”
The new conflict of interest policy drafted by Jim Provenza and Tim Taylor specifically addresses the issue of outside employment. First, it acknowledges that “executive-level positions involve time and energy beyond a normal position of employment.” Furthermore it states that “outside paid activities are incompatible with District employment if they require time periods that interfere with the proper, efficient discharge of the executive-level employee’s duties, if they entail compensation from an outside source for activities that are part of the executive-level employee’s regular duties, or if they involve using for private gain the District’s name, prestige, time, facilities, equipment or supplies.”
It is clear from this language that the activities that occurred under Tahir Ahad will not be allowable under the new policies of conflict of interest. It is clear that the new board has significantly strengthened the language of the conflict of interest code to prevent a recurrence of the problem and to enable the district to take clear and decisive action should a situation occur in the future.
However, it is not without irony that the previous conflict of interest policy may have still have performed a significant function. Earlier in this article the Form 700 was mentioned as filed by Tahir Ahad. During the course of investigating this, the Vanguard made numerous public records requests. One of the documents that were requested was all of Tahir Ahad’s annually filed “Statement of Economic Interest” forms, the Form 700.
What was discovered was surprising. The first three forms were filled out with schedule A-2 checked, denoting “attached investments” and disclosing Total Business Solutions as a business entity or trust. The forms were filled out that way in 2000, 2001, and 2002.
However in 2003, 2004, and 2005 there was no such disclosure. Those years he checked “no reportable interests on any schedule.” However a quick Google search will show plenty of expanding business activity during that time. I have documents from each of those years showing Tahir Ahad as President of Total School Solutions. And yet he filled out no disclosure. In his final year of 2006, once again, he disclosed the existence of his business.
Upon discovering this, the Vanguard forwarded the documents to the new DJUSD Superintendent James Hammond and the district’s counsel Eve Fitchner. Since that point, the Vanguard was informed that those documents were forwarded to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office and that there is an investigation underway. The Fair Political Practices Commission is also investigating the matter and will issue a report to the District Attorney’s office. It would be ironic if even the weak policy was strong enough to put Tahir Ahad in legal jeopardy.
This story was interesting in that each time it appeared that the investigation would end, more information came out, and further leads developed. There are a few areas that still need to be examined.
First, is that former employees complained about the treatment of classified employees at the time. Complaints ranged from employment practices, disciplinary practices, preferential treatment of those loyal to Tahir Ahad and the forcing of those not loyal to Tahir Ahad, to limited positions until they invariably left the district for other employment. Some of these complaints are quite serious but not confirmed.
Second, the Vanguard was told that the standard practice was that Tahir Ahad and the TSS employees would work until 5 pm. At which point they would shift gears and begin working on TSS business from district offices using district equipment. The Vanguard has made additional records requests to verify this, however, at this time; the district is still sorting through those records.
Board President Sheila Allen spoke with the Vanguard. While she was willing to come forth with information she did want to emphasize that it was a new day and that practices have changed.
“I’m totally fine with people knowing what happened that’s fine with me, but I want the headline and I want the last part of it to be here’s how it’s changed. It’s a new day. We have a new superintendent; we have an all-new budget office.”
It is clear that the most recent board made critical changes to their conflict of interest policy to avoid a repeat of what happened in the past. In addition they have hired new personnel.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting
This is the first in a three-part series. Next Sunday, we will have the second installment where we examine problems with the facilities funding that emerged as a result of the practices under Tahir Ahad and David Murphy.