County schools chief Jon Gundry would prefer we not talk about the quarter-million dollar contract he set up with a mystery company, which, for all intents and purposes, exists to funnel taxpayer money.
Gundry would also prefer we not discuss his decision to pay nearly six figures to a consultant who abruptly quit the moment his contract received public scrutiny.
And, of course, Gundry would prefer we shut up about the fact that he can’t provide a single document proving what work was done—beyond invoices that were billed to the county at a rate of $225 an hour, including travel time.
Thankfully, for Gundry, most of the county’s Board of Education trustees are all too happy to overlook his secretive spending, whether it be due to general disinterest or a lack of love for the messenger (hi).
Last November, the Board changed its policy on reviewing contracts of $10,000 and greater. Instead of being vetted by the school business services department, the threshold for such a review was upped to $99,000, according to comments made last week by general counsel Maribel Medina. It was a rather trusting decision considering the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) had just brought on its seventh superintendent—including interim placeholders—in the last eight years.
That same month, Gundry signed a contract with School Business Service Consultants, a company financial consultant Mark Skvarna suggested for paperwork purposes. The retired superintendent from Southern California would do payroll and financial audits for SCCOE, and payments would be made to School Business Service Consultants. But no information about the company can be found on the Internet, and that secrecy carried over to the contract.
San Jose Inside reported last week that Gundry and the SCCOE were unable to provide any documents from Skvarna noting progress or deliverables for $92,925 in payments.
Also unusual, Skvarna’s invoices noted that he would prefer to pick up payments in person from Gundry’s office rather than have accounting mail checks to School Business Service Consultants’ address.
In a meeting held Wednesday—if you’ve got 30 minutes to kill click on item 10.E—Gundry suggested that a lack of documentation for Skvarna’s work was done on purpose, because it was “sensitive” in nature.
“There’s some aspects of this I’m hesitant to talk about publicly,” Gundry said. “There are reasons on why I’m not going to give a completely clear answer in public.”
This makes no sense, for several reasons.
Gundry has not given the Board any reports regarding Skvarna’s work in closed session, which would prevent any conversations from going public. An assortment of exemptions to the Public Records Act also exist, for the sole reason of shielding confidential information.
What could be so important it can’t ever be written on paper? Even buried treasure gets an “X” to mark the spot.
Only two members of the SCCOE’s seven-person Board of Education took issue Wednesday with Gundry’s evasiveness: trustee Joe Di Salvo, who pulled Gundry’s contract request for an additional $150,000 from the May 20 agenda, and newly appointed board member Rosemary Kamei.
“I need an explanation from you Superintendent Gundry, how this all worked,” Di Salvo said, noting that Skvarna billed the county for an “excessive” $20,000 in travel over the course of just six months.
At that exact moment, Board president Darcie Green—who hopes to parlay her current seat into a spot in the State Assembly—got up from the dais and walked out of the room. Granted it was a long meeting, but the timing of such a departure was telling. Green returned from behind a curtain a minute or two later with something to drink, seemingly unconcerned that she and the Board had no idea what its direct report, the superintendent, had been up to.
“I think what we need to look at is not just this individual contract, but the processes overall,” Green said later in the meeting, taking the long view that it’s better to make sure mistakes don’t happen again—even if no one other than Di Salvo was willing to admit mistakes were made in this instance.
Green went on to suggest that the contract with School Business Service Consultants was legal and does not skirt “the spirit of the law.”
This might be true, in the sense that the SCCOE signed a contract with a consulting company and Gundry had the authority to do so without Board approval. But there is no denying that Gundry and staff enabled Skvarna to skirt CalPERS retirement rules by having School Business Service Consultants listed on the contract, rather than himself.
Skvarna retired as superintendent of Baldwin Park Unified School District in October 2014. CalPERS rules require him to apply for a waiver if he attempts to work for a California public agency within six months—he began consulting work for the SCCOE less than a month after retiring.
According to trustee Di Salvo, School Business Service Consultants’ sole proprietor, Frank Butler, has a reputation for acting as an intermediary to prevent retirees from being penalized by laws on double dipping.
“I don’t think it’s a good use of public dollars,” Di Salvo said. “Somebody from another district told me it’s 10 percent [Butler] makes to help people avoid the PERS issue. So, if he makes 10 percent and he’s employing 50 or 100 people, there’s a lot of money going into Mr. Butler’s pocket. Those are public dollars, so that somewhat concerns me.”
Trustees Grace Mah and Anna Song couldn’t have been less disturbed by the arrangement, except for the fact that Skvarna disappeared the moment his contract became public.
“If he has decided not to work for us for whatever reason, that’s a shame on the system, for us,” Mah said. “As far as the 10 percent that goes to Mr. Butler, as far as I understand, that’s quite a deal. I think it’s definitely worth the pubic dollars.”
Song took a different tack, admitting on one hand that she hasn’t been paying attention to the issues before taking a shot at San Jose Inside’s reporting of the shady dealings.
Let’s break down her thoughts, quote by quote:
Trustee Song: “I feel like the most checked-out board member of all, because I have personal reasons and work and whatnot going on.”
Translation: Has anyone else been watching Game of Thrones? This season has been crazy.
“Now there’s public scrutiny, for whatever the reasons. I don’t know what’s really motivating—I’m going to refuse to call it media. But it’s a public scrutiny. And, yes, we ought to be and should be and always have been responsible, but I think it’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to finish the job that we started. It’s unfortunate that I think he should have stuck around. Just because an item was pulled (from an agenda) doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to be automatically approved.”
It’s a shame Skvarna was so skittish. He had nothing to worry about. The money was always right here waiting.
“This is a practice allowed. Nothing illegal was done, as the public may not understand, because there are some things that we do the public do not immediately understand unless they really go through the system and get the system. After 16 years I still don’t get some of the system.”
This isn’t against the rules. You don’t even know the rules. Wait, what are the rules?
“It’s our loss. In the end, it’s our loss. So, it’s unfortunate. I resent sensationalism.”
I’m still upset that San Jose Inside reported that I was arrested last year for suspected spousal abuse.
Despite the best efforts of Di Salvo, and mentions of concern from Kamei, the Board repeatedly focused the discussion on the legality of the contract, and whether the SCCOE was protected from any liability. This apprehension most likely carries over from the very real threat of lawsuits to come out of the Walden West child abuse scandal.
But in bubbly fashion, Green managed to end the discussion on a lighter note.
“For me, the takeaway from this is let’s talk about things,” she said, pausing to laugh, “and maybe find out what’s really happening.”
Yes, that would be a fantastic place to start.