Complaints About School District Transparency Lack Perspective on Recent Past Practices

schoolscat.pngThere is no stronger advocate for government transparency than a watchdog reporter who wants to get his hands on as many government documents as possible.  In my view, open government acts, like the Brown Act and the Public Records Act, are far too weak, their disclosure requirements are  too weak, they have too many exemptions and are too difficult, for a citizen, to enforce.
I view both of these laws as minimum requirements, rather than being suitable for most governmental entities’ standard operating procedures.

So it was with open eyes that I read Walter Sadler’s editorial in the Enterprise on November 17 entitled, “Murky Transparency, At Best.”

When I first started covering the Davis School District, I might have agreed with Mr. Sadler’s complaints.  As I have gone to painstaking detail to highlight, I think the district under Superintendent David Murphy and CBO Tahir Ahad had a lot of problems with transparency.  But they have improved greatly in the last four years.

Are they perfect?  No.  They have work to do to improve, but in fairness, they have also had to deal with a devastating three-year-long and counting economic crisis.

Writes Mr. Sadler, who is simply identified as a Davis resident by the Enterprise, “Transparency is a term members of the Davis Joint Unified School District Board of Education continue to use with great emphasis to characterize their collective actions regarding budget matters, much as if stating it will make it so. Obviously, the trustees have been reading, but not necessarily comprehending, their handbooks on ethics for local officials.”

He continues by situating transparency within the context of the California Brown Act and the California Educational Code, which requires recording the minutes of a school board meeting and grants the public access once the board adopts them.

His complaint appears to be that the district and board have not adopted minutes in a timely manner – indeed this is not a problem limited to the school district, but also the City of Davis.  While I am not familiar with the issue from the standpoint of the school district, I am from the City of Davis and it was chiefly a workload issue.

It is a problem and it needs to be taken seriously.  But he seems to equate with far more than just that. 

Mr. Sadler writes, “This board has a random, if not very strategic and politically motivated, pattern for the approval of minutes. The trustees’ pattern of approval illustrates they believe that if they stall long enough, the public will forget about the issue.”

He then uses it to segue into a discussion of Measure W.

He writes, “Measure W was approved by Davis voters on Nov. 4, 2008, and at a regularly scheduled meeting of the board on Nov. 6, kudos were handed out for passage of the measure. The agenda and minutes of the Nov. 6 meeting note that the next regularly scheduled meeting would be on Nov. 20, with no mention of a special meeting on Sunday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 a.m. in the district office. Let me repeat, 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday!”

“This special meeting was noticed on Nov. 7. Neither the agenda nor the minutes of the special meeting references any emergency situation or continuation of any item that would justify the board waiving the 72-hour notification requirement of the Brown Act. Is there an odor here, or just plain indifference to the intent of the Brown Act?” he continues.  “The board adjourned to a closed session at 7:40 a.m. and reconvened this special meeting at 9:40 a.m. Two hours of a closed session to discuss two items with no action taken? What did they do, take a nap due to the early hour of the day?”

“Adopted minutes of the Nov. 9 meeting note one individual questioning a public meeting on Sunday morning, with no response from the board. While the agenda has an action item titled ‘District Budget Revision,’ the minutes reflect ‘Action on the budget revisions was postponed.'”

I will interject just briefly here to point out that an individual questioning the board during public comment is neither entitled to nor likely to get a response.  The board and staff are really not supposed to respond to public comments in public.

Of course, it might have been more helpful had this issue been raised two years ago.  It is certainly an issue that Mike Nolan brought up during his campaign.

Mr. Sadler then returns to the issue of transparency and the Brown Act (when he should actually be referring to the Ed ucation Code when talking about minutes to meetings).

He writes, “Board indifference to transparency and the Brown Act is further demonstrated by its approval process for meeting minutes, particularly those for the Nov. 6, 9 and 20, 2008, meetings. These minutes originally were scheduled for adoption on Jan. 8, 2009, but were removed from the consent calendar. Minutes for these meetings were finally approved on May 21, 2009; Oct. 29, 2009; and June 18, 2009, respectively.”

He continues, “With such a long time between the meeting and adoption of minutes, how does one separate fact from fantasy? Can you remember what you said or heard 11 months ago? Obviously, the board can, as demonstrated by its self-proclaimed transparent actions.”

He concludes, “This arrogant attitude toward input and review by the public is surfacing again with the next proposed parcel tax, which is rumored as currently being created. As in the past, these ‘creative problem solvers’ will leave approval of a new parcel tax to a date in the future where those of us with a higher concern for education than a political career will have no choice but to support a measure formulated in the dark, or have no funding at all.”

“This is definitely a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to public input and support. The board’s strategy of waiting to the last minute to review details and seek input on a new parcel tax is politically self-serving, as trustees know Davis, being an educationally oriented town, will not accept failure. One even wonders about compliance with the Brown Act.”

It is difficult to assess the Sunday board meeting on Measure W two years after the fact.  The minutes issue are indeed a problem and it would be helpful for the board to address that issue.  Clearly, they are operating with minimal staffing, but that needs to be made a higher priority.

But my response to this article is: seriously, this is your complaint?

Can the board improve in this area?  Yes, and it should.  But let’s look back over the previous administration, shall we, for some perspective.

I was frankly very disappointed to see Mike Nolan, during the debate, complaining about the school district rescinding the deal on Grande.  I was more disappointed to see Joan Sallee bring it up again.

I was heartened to see Rog Egel’s Op-ed on Sunday that not only set the record straight on Grande but cited the Vanguard’s 2008 article.

As he writes, “State law sets out numerous requirements that school districts must follow in order to sell surplus property. These include specific mandates designed to solicit community involvement and consensus, including requiring districts to establish a community advisory committee and to first offer to sell the property to other public agencies.”

He continues, “These provisions are clear in state law and were detailed in a 1990 legal opinion from the county counsel to the Davis schools superintendent and reiterated in a 2005 letter by Harriet Steiner, Davis’ city attorney.”

“The prior school board, however, failed to comply with these legal requirements,” he writes. “Instead, the board sought to circumvent state law by entering into a contract with a developer to “exchange” the Grande property for $5.5 million and a piece of property that was not owned by the developer. The property in question actually was owned by UC Davis, which had previously offered to give it to the school district at no cost.”

Furthermore, “The contract for a property ‘exchange’ was thus a sham, designed to avoid the legal requirements associated with the ‘sale’ of the property.”

It was a shady deal and they were going to ram home a development without input from the city or the neighbors.  Instead, the new board pulled it back, and worked with the neighbors and the city to come up with a subdivision everyone could support and, more importantly, followed both the letter and spirit of the law.

Grande, as my longtime readers know, is the tip of the iceberg.  The big problems started when a district official, who was working on the side for Tahir Ahad’s startup consultancy business, missed a deadline to get state matching funding for Montgomery Elementary School.

Worse yet, instead of being up front and honest, Tahir Ahad simply shuffled money from project to project to hide the loss of the millions of dollars from the state.

It finally caught up to him when the district was trying to finance King High construction and David Murphy attempted to slip through another $5 million COP (certificate of participation bonds) in 2006 to cover the lost money and explained to the board that they only had half the money needed to complete the King High Project. 

The problem is that the board had already approved a $10 million COP in 2006 that they were told would finance the construction of King High and other projects.

Superintendent David Murphy tried to assure the board that they had all the money in place but lacked the documentation, “I’m sure we have all the money that we think we have, but the documentation provided to the FCMAT [Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team] team was deficient… I’m confident that not only do we have the money that we believe we have, but the documentation will show that.”

Superintendent Murphy had to explain on December 7 of that year what happened to the money, “The project was approved by the board on August 17. However, on November 2, it was quite clear that the district’s procedures and the staff’s work by which we’ve kept the board updated and clearly involved in a timely way to understand changes by which to fund this project were very inadequate.”

In other words, the district was not even transparent to the school board at that time, let alone the public.

He continued, “On November 2, it was clear that five board members were surprised to learn that the complete funding of the financing project had not already been approved by a board decision and would be dependent on a current or a future board decision. During the November 2 board meeting, staff indicated a second certificate of participation [COP] would be needed at that time to be issued in the future in order to complete the funding of this budget and that was not expected by this board.”

He concluded, “Although that COP would be repaid by CFD [Community Facilites District] revenues, the fact is the board was quite surprised by that need and believed the King High School had already had a formal board approved financing plan. I had not realized the board would be surprised, but the fact is all five board members were. We’d like to and should acknowledge where we see those things occurring, and then we should say what we should do as a consequence of looking at those facts clearly, publicly, and that’s what we’re doing. No one wants such surprises, I don’t want them, the board doesn’t want them, nobody wants them. They’re not done by deliberate intent but they sometimes occur.”

What really happened is that the money was being shuffled around.

Said Gina Daleiden, board member at that meeting in December 2006, “Essentially it’s telling us that the bulk of that COP money went to Korematsu… It looks like about $7 million dollars went to Korematsu… That would be a little bit of a new surprise for me. I mean I’m pretty surprised because that was not a discussion that I ever heard that the COP money was for Korematsu.”

The money did not disappear, it was just hidden.

Gina Daleiden explained it all in an interview with the Vanguard in early 2008.

“Basically, here comes Montgomery, they’re short the money because they missed the filing deadlines, so now Montgomery is drawing more local funds than were anticipated. Here comes Korematsu, that’s budgeted for a certain amount, enrollment declines,” she told the Vanguard.

She continued, “Korematsu gets fewer dollars from the state, so now Korematsu is drawing on more of the local funds, and at some point this $10 million gets dumped into the same fund and now it’s all rolling together so it’s covering whatever was being pulled out before, also modernization projects are in that same funding… Basically King was the last project in, in that course, and the first one to run out of money.”

Gina Daleiden, in her interview with the Vanguard, cited the FCMAT report (available on the district webpage on the right hand column) page 95,

“There was funding that was not yet board approved that was on a line that was called “redevelopment agency” funds, and that is actually in the FCMAT report, page 95, “since the issuance of FCMAT’s initial draft report, the district has disclosed that the $3 million was entered on the wrong line and instead should have reflected a new COP issuance,” which would have been financing, “with a second $3 million to be requested in 2007. Since neither amount had been approved by the board, it is not appropriate to reflect that as cash flow unless clearly noted as potential cash. The current practice of listing the amounts without such a notation must be discontinued. The district should insure that all revenue projections are realistic and based on likely funding.”

Talk about lack of transparency?  This was the culture that the school district and school board had to come in to and rectify.  The FCMAT team that was brought in found quite a few accounting anomalies that had to be corrected to produce a far more transparent record.  Monies were being shifted from fund to fund without knowledge of the district. 

Was this practice legal?  Apparently, but it was ill-advised and likely to create the kinds of accounting problems that it ultimately did all this.  Moreover, the purpose by Tahir Ahad was to deceive the board into believing that money was there when it was not.

Again, I think there is a lot more the district can do to be much more transparent.  I would like to see a continued improvement of their website.  Like the city, they need a better system to communicate with the public.  But they are also very limited with funding and facing another huge hole.

Bruce Colby has done an admirable job with the budget since he arrived, but he is now largely working alone due to budget cuts that have seen numerous personnel cuts to his department.

Overall however, the district is much improved, and much of what Mr. Sadler is complaining about is easily correctable.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

15 Comments

  1. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “He writes, “Board indifference to transparency and the Brown Act is further demonstrated by its approval process for meeting minutes, particularly those for the Nov. 6, 9 and 20, 2008, meetings. These minutes originally were scheduled for adoption on Jan. 8, 2009, but were removed from the consent calendar. Minutes for these meetings were finally approved on May 21, 2009; Oct. 29, 2009; and June 18, 2009, respectively.””

    The issue here is the failure of the School Board to approve minutes until an overly long period of 6-10 months after the fact. What is even more puzzling is that one set of minutes was approved only 2 months after the fact. Why the discrepancy, if not politically motivated depending on what issues were discussed? What happened with Grande and King Hall is completely irrelevant to the issue of what Walter Sadler was complaining about.

    dmg: “He [Walter Sadler] continues, “With such a long time between the meeting and adoption of minutes, how does one separate fact from fantasy? Can you remember what you said or heard 11 months ago? Obviously, the board can, as demonstrated by its self-proclaimed transparent actions.”
    He [Walter Sadler] concludes, “This arrogant attitude toward input and review by the public is surfacing again with the next proposed parcel tax, which is rumored as currently being created. As in the past, these ‘creative problem solvers’ will leave approval of a new parcel tax to a date in the future where those of us with a higher concern for education than a political career will have no choice but to support a measure formulated in the dark, or have no funding at all.””

    DMG, you omitted important parts of Mr. Sadler’s commentary, which puts more context to his editorial:
    “However, ethical behavior by a board dictates adopting minutes in a timely manner, to facilitate the public’s review of the board’s actions and provide an official administrative record of who voted and how they voted on the public issues before them.
    The Davis Board of Education, by its actions, fails to demonstrate a commitment to the concept of transparency or maybe even compliance with the Brown Act. This board has a random, if not very strategic and politically motivated, pattern for the approval of minutes. The trustees’ pattern of approval illustrates they believe that if they stall long enough, the public will forget about the issue.
    This reminds me of the student who hides his/her report card in the hope that no one will ask to see it. The board’s record is replete with examples of this type of behavior, including its actions following approval of Measure W, i.e. more money for them to spend…
    With the passage of Measure W, and the short notice and timing of this meeting, one begins to question the board’s statements regarding open and transparent actions toward the budget process and expenditure of the public’s money…
    This is definitely a “my way or the highway” approach to public input and support. The board’s strategy of waiting to the last minute to review details and seek input on a new parcel tax is politically self-serving, as trustees know Davis, being an educationally oriented town, will not accept failure. One even wonders about compliance with the Brown Act.”

    I understood Mr. Sadler’s complaint to be that the process for Measure W was not particularly transparent; and he does not want to see the same thing happen with any new parcel tax increase that is proposed. He wants any new parcel tax increase proposed by the School Board to be done in a timely manner, with plenty of opportunity for public input, and clear and timely minutes that reflect how each Board member voted on the issue. Do you have an disagreement with that? And if not, then why the criticism of Mr. Sadler’s point?

  2. Ryan Kelly

    I agree that if meeting minutes were approved and posted quickly, then board members and the public could monitor the flow of discussions and decisions better. The importance of accurate minutes only becomes understood when things go wrong. However, we have pared down staff in the District office to bare bones, even a starvation level. The choice becomes handling a pressing situation with a child or typing up the minutes. I can see that choosing to help the child becomes the more important task.

  3. wdf1

    Okay. Here’s Mr. Sadler’s Op-ed piece:

    [url]http://search.davisenterprise.com/display.php?id=71627[/url]

    In general, I don’t quite get it. If someone else does, please explain. I find his article a bit long and adversarial to the school board if the concern is over this one meeting. Those minutes are now posted online, and there is nothing nefarious I can find in the notes on that meeting.

    The issue here is the failure of the School Board to approve minutes until an overly long period of 6-10 months after the fact.

    What does Ed code require in the way of minutes being approved?

    I understood Mr. Sadler’s complaint to be that the process for Measure W was not particularly transparent; and he does not want to see the same thing happen with any new parcel tax increase that is proposed.

    I have reread his op-ed a few times now, and he does not specifically criticize Measure W. He talks about Measure W as a reference point to the fact that the meeting in question took place on the Sunday after that parcel tax passed. The Sunday meeting in question did not even appear to address Measure W specifically.

    As for Sadler’s concern that the school board might be plotting in the dark about a future parcel tax, the school board has barely even been in a position to identify cuts for next year, and that is without any cuts suggested for the 2011-2012 state budget.

    Unless he is establishing a basis for opposing any increase in a future parcel tax, I’m having a hard time figuring out any larger point of his criticisms. You can look elsewhere in local and area public agencies/government and easily find other issues that provoke greater outrage.

  4. E Roberts Musser

    To wdf1 and Ryan Kelly: Don’t you find it odd that 2 sets of minutes took 6-10 months to publish, yet only 2 months to publish in another case? Yet the meetings were within weeks of each other…

  5. wdf1

    ERM: To wdf1 and Ryan Kelly: Don’t you find it odd that 2 sets of minutes took 6-10 months to publish, yet only 2 months to publish in another case? Yet the meetings were within weeks of each other…

    Please elaborate. What should we suspect, then, Elaine?

  6. E Roberts Musser

    wdf1: “Please elaborate. What should we suspect, then, Elaine?”

    My take on it would be the School Board is perhaps sloppy (not necessarily purposefully – maybe just negligently)in doing its due diligence to get minutes out in a timely manner – which is important if the public wants to know what each school board member’s position was on a particular issue that is potentially coming up for a vote. Having minutes published 6-10 months after the fact is IMHO unacceptable, especially in light of the fact that the Board was able to get one set of minutes published within 2 months. So I’m not buying the argument of short-staffing…

    I also am very troubled that there would be a public meeting held at 7:30 am on a Sunday morning that was not due to an emergency. That smacks of circumventing proper process. Now if this was an isolated incident, I would probably not make much of it unless it had to do w a controversial issue – and it is not clear if that was the case (Did that 7:30 am meeting have to do w a controversial issue(?) – since it was held behind closed doors for part of the time, we will never know). If, on the other hand, the School Board holds frequent meetings at such unusual hours, I’d be more concerned. I do think the School Board can do better…

    My feeling, quite frankly, is that both the city and the School Board don’t seem all that concerned about sticking to proper procedure (which is there for very good reason). The School Board has improved from the days of Murphy/Ahad, but it still could use some improvement. The city on the other hand has a long, long way to go to make the substantial improvement it needs to follow proper procedure…

  7. wdf1

    Well, has the school board been late posting minutes recently? (past year, for instance?) If so, well this topic would begin to feel a little more relevant. But no matter how hard a try, I just can’t get myself outraged, here. This is something that happened 18 months to two years ago. Why bring this up now? If this issue were so important, why not have raised it then?

    The school board has held Sunday morning meetings before this meeting and after. In fact they just held one this past November 7, Sunday, at 9 a.m.

    The November 9, 2008 meeting was notable in that this was when the school board was entertaining the notion of reconfiguring the grade levels. The public who attended that meeting came out of concern for the future of Emerson JH. There is plenty of business to come before the school board, and sometimes regularly sceduled meetings aren’t enough. I’m glad the school board makes extra time to deal with business.

    The school board almost always has a closed session portion of their meetings. Ususally to discuss certain personnel matters, employee contract negotiations, expulsions of students, or anything else that requires a certain level of confidentiality.

    Having minutes published 6-10 months after the fact is IMHO unacceptable, especially in light of the fact that the Board was able to get one set of minutes published within 2 months.

    I agree that 6 months doesn’t seem to be in the realm of good practice. But does ed code require minutes to be posted within a certain interval? If so, what?

    This whole issue seems really small to me compared to the coming state budget deficit of $25 billion that has to be dealt with in the coming months.

  8. E Roberts Musser

    wdf1: “This whole issue seems really small to me compared to the coming state budget deficit of $25 billion that has to be dealt with in the coming months.”

    What does the state budget have to do with the author’s op-ed piece? Your argument that his criticisms are not worthy of much consideration reminds me of dmg’s argument that Zipcar was not worth complaining about in relation to city pensions. The fact that the state budget is a mess does not make it any less acceptable for the school board to publish minutes 6-10 months late.

  9. wdf1

    The fact that the state budget is a mess does not make it any less acceptable for the school board to publish minutes 6-10 months late.

    Elaine, demonstrate to me that it’s still going on, and I’ll concede you have a point. Otherwise it’s rather a waste of time.

  10. E Roberts Musser

    wdf1: “Elaine, demonstrate to me that it’s still going on, and I’ll concede you have a point. Otherwise it’s rather a waste of time.”

    At the Nov 18, 2010 meeting of the Davis School Board, minutes from Aug 26 (3 months late), Oct 21 (1 month late) and Nov 4 (2 weeks prior which is reasonable) were approved all at once. Why 3 months to approve meeting minutes of Aug 26? It is interesting to not the Aug 26 meeting agenda included a closed session, discussion of sale of surplus property, and discussion of Measure Q and W. Now what say you?

  11. wdf1

    At the Nov 18, 2010 meeting of the Davis School Board, minutes from Aug 26 (3 months late), Oct 21 (1 month late) and Nov 4 (2 weeks prior which is reasonable) were approved all at once. Why 3 months to approve meeting minutes of Aug 26? It is interesting to not the Aug 26 meeting agenda included a closed session, discussion of sale of surplus property, and discussion of Measure Q and W. Now what say you?

    I think you try a little too hard to find shortcomings of public agencies. You do a superb job when it comes to analyzing issues connected to senior citizens, but carrying on with this particular issue, here, is just plain silly.

    You know what? If you really, really have to know what happened in a particular school board meeting, you can find archived broadcasts at the Davis Media Access site at

    [url]http://www.djusd.tv/[/url]

    The Aug. 26 meeting was posted on Aug. 31. The Oct. 21 meeting was posted on Oct. 26. The Nov. 4 meeting was posted on Nov. 9. You can easily fast forward through sections you don’t care to watch. You can listen the very words that were spoken, complete with tone and inflection. On the dates that Mr. Sadler complains of, Davis Media Access was also posting broadcast archives of those meetings.

    Given this convenience, do you really want DJUSD to lay off another teacher to have extra secretarial staff to meet your time table on having written minutes?

    I think there might be a good case to make that DJUSD has far more transparency in this area than may have existed when you were in grade school. At least more transparency than it seems you were willing to acknowledge.

    Elaine, I was genuinely hoping you were going to find other more recent instances of school board meetings held outside of regular meeting times (which then are not broadcast), where the only record of deliberations is indeed the printed minutes, for instance, the Sunday, Nov. 9, 7:30 a.m. meeting which Mr. Sadler notes above. Because if there are other instances, then you are indeed correct. We really ought to have minutes of those kinds of meetings produced more quickly.

  12. E Roberts Musser

    To wdf1: Why the inconsistency in approving minutes – sometimes 3 months later, sometimes 2 weeks later? The last special meeting was held at 9 am Sunday morning, on Nov 7, 2010. It will be interesting to see when they get around to approving those minutes. Let’s hope they read Mr. Sadler’s op-ed. In response to your comment “I think you try a little too hard to find shortcomings of public agencies…carrying on with this particular issue, here, is just plain silly… – the Davis Enterprise seemed to think Mr. Sadler’s editorial had merit enough to publish it…

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for