Conflict of Interest: Did County Board of Education Member Violate Law in Participating in Charter Vote?

On February 17, 2015, the County Board of Education voted 4-1 against a staff recommendation and granted the appeal of the charter petition of Empowering Possibilities International Charter School (EPIC). In so doing, newly-elected board member Matt Taylor appeared to go against counsel recommendation that he recuse himself, due to the perception of a conflict between his duties of as a board member and his job with the California Charter School Association (CCSA).

In late January, Jesse Ortiz, Superintendent of the Yolo County Office of Education, sought a legal opinion from Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost. The Board was considering the charter petition submitted by EPIC, where CCSA was identified as a “key advisor” to EPIC.

Paul Thompson and Justin Simpson, writing for the firm, noted, “According to EPIC’s charter petition, EPIC’s budget and financial reports were developed from information provided by CCSA, among others. Moreover, we understand that CCSA’s Managing Regional Director was a keynote speaker on behalf of EPIC at the public hearing in January 2015.”

They find that, while Mr. Taylor’s “employment with CCSA does not appear to create an unlawful financial conflict of interest under Government Code section 1090 or the Political Reform Act,” because CCSA is an advocate for EPIC, “Mr. Taylor’s participation in any issues that come before the Board related to EPIC (or any other charter that CCSA supports) could create an unlawful incompatible activity and/or common law conflict of interest.”

They recommend that this “conflict may be cured if Mr. Taylor recuses himself from all participation and discussion, and abstains from any vote on the matter.” But if “such matters are continuing and pervasive, then resignation from either the Board or his position with CCSA would be considered as the only effective cure.”

Based on this finding, Mr. Taylor consulted the firm of Churchwell White to analyze the matter further. In their February 13, 2015, report, they note that Mr. Ortiz, “without notifying you or the Board of Education, caused the Fagen law firm to write a legal opinion” and that Mr. Taylor was “never contacted by Superintendent Ortiz, his staff or the Fagen firm at any time prior to the distribution of the memo by Superintendent Ortiz.”

The memo notes, “The Fagen memo concedes that you have no financial conflict of interest in the EPIC charter appeal, but then tries mightily to manufacture a non-financial conflict out of thin air.” They argue that Mr. Taylor has “no personal stake in the EPIC application, nor have you shown any personal bias against or in favor of EPIC.”

They conclude, “We are unconcerned about any court concluding that you have a common law conflict of interest if you consider, debate and vote on the EPIC appeal.”

A February 11 staff report recommended denying the EPIC Charter School Petition. However, the Board would disagree with the staff recommendation and vote to approve the charter by a 4-1 vote, with Carol Souza Cole in dissent.

Board President Shelton Yip told the Vanguard, “This is a charter that has a sound background. It has a sound program.” He said another charter school last year was denied due to the lack of a sound program or financial picture.

The Vanguard received community concern from a number of individuals and, on that basis, obtained both legal opinions through a public records request. Board President Shelton Yip told the Vanguard that, while there was no formal discussion on the matter, no one on the board voiced an objection to Mr. Taylor’s participation.

While Mr. Taylor was unable to speak with the Vanguard, he provided lengthy email answers to Vanguard questions.

Matt Taylor is the Director of Research at CCSA, as a staff member on the Achievement and Performance Team.

He said, “I am part of the team that works with student assessment, data, and accountability. My team reviews the performance of charter schools throughout the state, does research into important education related public policy, and annually calls for the non-renewal of charter schools that fall below our minimum criteria.”

In this work, he analyzes publicly available data from the California Department of Education to determine how charter schools are performing. This is done, he explains, “to ensure that they are providing positive educational outcomes for students. Those schools that are not, my team will actively take steps to ensure that these schools will not be renewed or allowed to replicate.”

He explained that he has a limited understanding of CCSA’s relationship to EPIC. The parent organization of EPIC is Gateway Charter School. They are members of CCSA along with about 600-700 other charter schools in the state.

“I have had no involvement the EPIC charter petition,” Matt Taylor told the Vanguard. “In fact, I didn’t even know Gateway had a resource center in West Sacramento until the petition was submitted to Washington Unified School District. With so many charter schools in the state (at last count there were 1184 charter schools), I am not able to interact with all of them.”

He indicated, “Most of my work deals with charter schools from a data perspective and in the aggregate. Individual schools look like a CDS code in a database – especially those that are above our minimum performance standards. The only schools I deal with directly are those that fall below our minimum performance standards and I have never had to work with Gateway or any of its schools in that capacity.”

Based on the legal opinion from Churchwell, he said, “This opinion was extremely clear. There is no conflict of interest and therefore nothing to prohibit me from participating in the decision.”

“I participated in the charter appeal decision as a duly elected representative of trustee Area 1. As an elected official, I have a responsibility to represent the constituency that elected me to do this work,” he said.

Moreover, he said he had researched the issue prior to submitting paperwork to run for office and, based on that, he said, “There was no financial or statutory conflict of interest between my work at CCSA and my ability to evaluate the charter appeal as required in Education Code 47605.”

“We as elected officials are elected to serve our communities, we are elected based on our knowledge and abilities,” he added. “The people of West Sacramento elected me to serve a four-year term on the Yolo County Board of Education. I think one of the beautiful things about the political process is that voters can express their wishes by electing a particular candidate.”

He would conclude, “As there was no financial or statutory conflict of interest in my voting on this petition, I have a responsibility and a duty to represent my community by participating in all decisions at the Yolo County Office of Education using the knowledge and abilities they elected me to apply in these tough policy decisions.”

Shelton Yip told the Vanguard that he did not have a problem with Trustee Taylor’s participation in the vote. “It’s a pretty long stretch… When you talk about a conflict of interest there has to be a direct interest, a financial interest of some sort.”

“Is there a perception? Of course and that’s what we’re talking about right now,” he added. “It was a choice issue at that point.”

He pointed out with the 4-1 vote that occurred, Mr. Taylor’s participation did not change the outcome. “Even if the trustee were to recuse himself, it still would have passed at a 3-1 vote,” Mr. Yip said.

–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.

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6 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    It would seem based on the information that you have presented, that the answer to the question in the article’s title is a resounding “no”.

  2. Davis Progressive

    there is a huge point missing here.  the conflict of interest policies are extremely weak.  basically you have to have a direct financial interest.  the question is whether as an employee for one of the chief charter school companies he has a conflict and could be compelled in fact or in theory to support the charter petition.  that is not answered here.

  3. Tia Will

    DP

    I agree. The issue of what constitutes conflict of interest itself would seem to warrant greater attention at all levels of government. It is my personal opinion that conflict of interest should be more broadly defined and that if we want that outcome, we should encourage change from the current “finances only” standard. This may be a hard sell as virtually everything in our current society is weighed on a finance or economics only basis as best I can tell.

  4. Anon

    What the law should be in regard to conflict of interest is irrelevant here.  The question was whether this particular individual violated any conflict of interest requirements…

    1. Davis Progressive

      that’s a legal question.  the question from perspective is more political in nature – is matt taylor free to exercise his own independent judgment when he votes on this issue or is he constrained by his work.

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