Three members of the seven-person county Board of Education will step on a plane this week and fly to Southern California. The trio has been tasked with shadowing a top candidate for the superintendent position within the county Office of Education (COE), according to sources with knowledge of the trip.
The trip is expected to result in a new long-term leader to oversee the county’s 31 public school districts—assuming the board doesn’t make yet another mistake in hiring the wrong person.
Mary Ann Dewan currently serves as acting county superintendent of schools. She took over the position in March after Xavier De La Torre, dogged by criticism of his aggressive leadership style and staff cutbacks, hightailed it back to El Paso, Texas, a little more than two years following his first day on the job. Dewan is the sixth person to fill the superintendent role in the last seven years, and perhaps the next hire will be lucky number seven.
Luck, however, has had nothing to do with the dysfunction inside the COE, which has suffered from a series of blunders in recent years. De La Torre’s ignominious departure was just the latest COE gaffe.
In April, San Jose Inside found that more than a half-million dollars that could have gone toward helping area foster youth was wasted on a database to nowhere. Contracts and references were never properly vetted, and administrators stonewalled most of San Jose Inside’s requests for information up until the day before the story was published. Many employees tasked with overseeing the database’s construction have since left the office, and the general approach of remaining COE officials has been one of frowning at facts when a shrug won’t do.
In March, the COE acknowledged it had to pay $200,000 to the IRS for a payroll glitch that went on for several years. That same month the COE was forced to admit board member Darcie Green had been illegally appointed as a trustee. The county would have faced a lawsuit had she not resigned and moved to a different district before being reappointed. Before that, and perhaps the biggest flub, De La Torre’s predecessor, Chuck Weis, saddled the COE with a $900,000 luxury condo in downtown San Jose without making a single payment on the zero-interest loan he received, courtesy of the board.
A COE press release sent out just last week noted that the board will put the condo up for sale and quoted trustee Leon Beauchman as saying, “We remain committed to being good stewards of taxpayer funds and are pleased to be able to close the books on these properties.”
Those words sounded familiar and stale, especially after San Jose Inside pored through more than a thousand emails and documents made available after nearly two months of negotiating with the COE over a standard Public Records Act (PRA) request. The emails provide a rare glimpse into an insulated power structure that attempts to control the message at all times, delays the delivery of information when possible and spins uncomfortable facts into purple public relations prose.
As an example of the latter, COE communications director Ken Blackstone, hired with a $137,591 annual salary in November under the De La Torre regime, has repeatedly used a variation of an answer to respond to completely different questions on completely different matters from completely separate media entities.
On March 28, Blackstone wrote to Bay Area News Group education reporter Sharon Noguchi, who was working on a story regarding the payroll failure, that “one of our major efforts in the past few years has been to improve stewardship of taxpayer dollars through the continual review of all aspects of the SCCOE.” This was two hours after he told San Jose Inside, in response to questions about the foster youth database fiasco, “Also, I would like to add that one of our major efforts in the past few years has been to improve stewardship of taxpayer dollars through the continual review of all aspects of the SCCOE.”
In a follow-up interview with San Jose Inside, Blackstone called it a “good answer” that was “applicable in both situations.” When Dewan was asked if this is the level of transparency she expects from her office, she said:
“Well, I think in response to requests and things of that nature and public records and/or media requests, we have been setting our processes here at the county office and looking to be compliant and efficient and take a global schematic approach across our department. Our efforts are more cohesive. We want to be responsive. That’s certainly our intention to be responsive. But we also want to make sure we’re compliant and efficient.”
Dewan’s robotic response says nearly as much about her “intention to be responsive” as the emails her office turned over—which included documents she and Blackstone withheld from previous requests for information.
One email shows that Dewan, who got a $7,500 monthly raise on her $169,000 annual salary after receiving the interim superintendent tag, coached board member Beauchman for an interview with San Jose Inside while also providing invoices that were never turned over. In an April 11 phone call, Dewan told San Jose Inside that she would have cooperated more with the database story had she known we were requesting comment sooner. But emails show Blackstone—who refused to even meet with San Jose Inside before its story ran April 9—was blind carbon copying (Bcc-ing) her on emails as far back as late March.
Following a Board meeting April 9, Dewan sent an email to trustees—five of the seven received the email at their private addresses—noting that San Jose Inside’s article was discussed in closed session. The COE’s justification for keeping these comments out of the public record appears to be a stretch.
“The discussion in closed session, although we did reference the article, it was in regards to potential litigation, and not a party to you or the media per se, but questions around things that we were all learning as part of your story,” Dewan would later tell San Jose Inside.
Using the threat of potential litigation—despite no evidence that the COE will be sued for its feckless foster youth database—has now kept conversations that should have been public under wraps. All six COE officials whose emails were inspected by San Jose Inside received a link to the foster youth database article online, but none offered commentary or reply. That could be because the COE excluded “10-15 percent” of the 1,400 emails and documents turned up in the request, according to Blackstone.
When asked how many documents were excluded from the PRA request under the vague, potentially “deliberative process” clause in the Public Records Act, which prevents internal discussions from becoming public until finalized, Blackstone refused to consult the COE’s general counsel or make her available.
“We’ve complied with your request under the Public Records Act, and that is our response,” he said.
Several emails that do appear to show inappropriate behavior were sent between Dewan and board trustee Michael Chang. In the emails, Chang, who as a trustee is one of Dewan’s seven bosses, introduces a friend, Tommy Liu, who is looking for a teaching job. Dewan agrees to meet with Liu and help him find job at a local school or possibly even a COE position. The quid pro quo potential is obvious, as Chang could then support Dewan’s installation as superintendent on a permanent basis.
Dewan said she has not received any indication how her role will change if a new superintendent is found. But according to sources with knowledge of the trustees’ trip to SoCal, something terribly wrong would have to occur for a replacement to be named later than next week.
The following voice message was attached to an email COE communications director Ken Blackstone sent to Sonja House, a Foster Youth Services coordinator, regarding San Jose Inside’s PRA request: