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More allegations, more documents

Today, I lugged a tall stack of papers out of 1025 Second Avenue. In response to a public records request, the school district released hundreds of documents related to its investigation of payments to the Bryant & Brown law firm (most of which came from construction bond money, for work with facilities projects).

Among them was a letter written by Deborah Cooksey, the district’s general counsel, to Meredith Brown, of Bryant & Brown. It accuses the firm of a number of things, including:

  • charging OUSD multiple times for the same work ($50,929)
  • mismanaging a “routine” case with an electrical company by taking it to court, rather than negotiating — and losing ($722,268)
  • copying and pasting City of Piedmont forms, making minor changes for a Waste Management contract, and billing OUSD $51,000 for the drafting work
  • refusing to cooperate with the General Counsel’s office

Cooksey also writes that Brown tried to get school board president David Kakishiba to call off the investigation, and that she contacted Gary Yee as well.

The letter is pretty scathing. (You can find it here, if you scroll to Page 12.) It even recounts an instance in March, when Brown allegedly canceled a meeting with Cooksey and facilities director Tim White because of an illness, yet billed the district for 12 hours of work that day.

Now, a couple of people have called to say that Meredith Brown — who did most of the work in question — is an upstanding person and respected attorney who probably just made a mistake, or that there was bad blood between her and Cooksey.

Brown certainly doesn’t fit the “shady lawyer” profile. She’s the president of the Montclair Soccer Club, for Pete’s sake, and the vice president of the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club. She was a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

As far as the district goes, no one (i.e. White) has been forced out or disciplined because of the investigation. OUSD spokesman Troy Flint said Wednesday that the district is not accusing anyone of being dishonest — although Cooksey’s letter does sort of have that ring to it.

“There were cases where protocol was not followed, and a lack of oversight in come instances, but it’s premature to suggest that there was any kind of malfeasance,” Flint said. “We have referred it to the D.A., who, as an impartial, third party, can best make that judgment.”

You can find the full story here.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Jim Mordecai

    15280. (a) The governing board of the district shall, without expending bond funds, provide the citizens’ oversight committee with any necessary technical assistance and shall provide administrative
    assistance in furtherance of its purpose and sufficient resources to publicize the conclusions of the citizens’ oversight committee.

    Does the wording “the district shall, without expending bond funds, provide the citizens’ oversight committee with any necessary technical assistance… mean that attorneys working with the Measure B Committee cannot be paid by the District out of Measure B funding?

    The question to follow should be was Measure B money used to pay any of the work provided by Bryant & Brown that was for working with the Measure B Committee?

    If Measure B money was used to pay for work with the Measure B Committee, the fault lies not with Bryant and Brown but with the District not in compliance with the above education code.

    As to the Bryant and Brown charges against it by the District’s General Counsel, the outcome lies with the D.A. and further public disclosures.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Catherine

    What these costly errors in judgment, fairness and mismanagement do is hurt OUSD in many more ways than the missing three quarters of a million dollars.

    I, like many of my neighbors will not vote for an increase in the parcel tax, bond measures or other money for OUSD quite simply because we can’t trust them. We had a school board member show up at our PTA meeting and talk about the increased parcel tax that he wanted to have voted up or down, talked about turning the school board into “bean counters” and spoke up the merits of Open Court.

    What I and many of the parents at our school feel is that we will make our school better through PTA funds. We will choose a Title 1 school to help. We do not trust the district or the State Superintendent’s office to handle money, education, oversight or contracts; we will let PTAs do it – for less money and more child-centered benefits.

    Please OUSD, do not ask for any additional funds. Do not ask for our trust. Do not ask for our help in getting the school district back into the hands of the School Board. You need to be held accountable for the lack of oversight. You need to have a complete operational audit and you need to be completely transparent with the results of the operational audit. All documents related to the audit must be made available online for everyone to view. Then and only then may you ask for our money, our support or our trust.

  • G. Bird

    Though I doubt it was her intent, Catherine just made one of the strongest arguments for charter schools that I have seen on this blog in a while.

    In it’s most organic way, she is describing the process of growing frustrated with the poor oversight that plagues our schools. She also outlines her plan to strengthen the PTA (a local governance board), and to transfer to them responsibilities typically given to the school board. Charter schools are the mechanism by which these actions gain validity and effectively lead to increased autonomy.

    Mr. Mordecai often speaks of the “corporate charters” but I wonder what he and others think about a group of parents and educators who grow so frustrated with the failure of bureaucrats and their oversight that they take the power back and separate from the traditional public school system. Is this not the truest form of local control?

  • Turner

    Catherine: OUSD is audited by several bodies including the State Controllers Office and FCMAT. They audit the district comprehensively each year and release their results after they are presented to the Board. The district should publicize the release of those reports in an effort to be more transparent.

    G.Bird: I agree that poor oversight is a problem at OUSD. But, I think it’s as a result of their focus on politics instead of education. OUSD leadership is a game of one-upping the next person. The problem at OUSD is not lack of money, lack of dedicated teachers or a lack of qualified personnel. The problem is the leadership. From the State Administrator to the Board members, they have all lost sight of the fact that they are trustees of public education in Oakland. That’s why we are where we are today.

    I don’t think charter schools are the way to resolve this issue. Let’s deal with the OUSD leadership issue then go from there.

    Turner

  • Jim Mordecai

    G Bird:

    No, it isn’t public frustration with oversight but the lack of oversight that is of most concern after years of Republican see no evil, hear no evil deregulation as the public treasury is robbed.

    And, No on Measure N. Measure N with its $18 million give-away to charter schools without oversight or strings attached. $18 million that tests scores that have no more validityare as bills submitted to OUSD for payment.

    Charter schools are the other, the ideal of not having to deal with the corrupt system that exists. But, people are people, and although our existing democratic institutions such as school boards are flawed, replacing democratic, elected school boards with CEOs and deregulated privatized corporate charters is the wrong answer for frustration with the current system.

    Catherine:

    I support your demand for transparency as the road to establishing trust in OUSD.

    But this is a very complex situation and difficult envrionment to establish trust. You have the forces of State take-over influenced by business model of Eli Broad. You have a school board that has been trained in the group-think outlook of the Aspen Group trainers trying to regain leadership of a district with a huge debt in a State going bankrupt. And, you have an internal battle for the post State take-over of administration of the district lead by the gang of 5 calling self defined as the “Strategy team” made up of Roberta Mayor (Board selected Superintendent/grafted ex-officio member of the gang), Leon Glaster (post retirement short term advisor), Laura Moran, Brad Stam, Kirsten Vital. Really school board and Superintendent are not part of the inner gang of three Vital, Stam, and Moran. Sort of Oakland’s leadership troika.

    I believe democracy is the worse form of governance except all the others including charter schools that need to be regulated or the experiment abandoned as ungovernable under present law.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Katy Murphy

    After reading your varied responses to this post and related ones, I have another question:

    In your mind, does OUSD earn transparency points by scrutinizing these payments (albeit, after the fact) and letting us know about this investigation, rather than quietly cutting a deal?

    Or, in the pursuit of transparency, did the district merely undermine the trust of the public (who would otherwise be ignorant about the whole affair)?

  • Jim Mordecai

    Katy:

    OUSD gets transparency points for not cutting a deal.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Turner

    Katy:

    They score a third of the points for transparency, another third for punishing the perpetrator(s), and the final third for publicly acknowledging their mistake and showing how the problem will not occur again.

    Or, like Jim said, they get max points for not getting into shady deals in the first place.

    OUSD always undermines the public trust. I also think they did not foresee the public backlash being so intense.

    Turner

  • Catherine

    Katy:

    They do earn some transparancy points; however, I believe you requested the information under the Freedom of Information Act. I don’t believe, please correct me if I’m wrong, they contacted you to print the information they had been working to verify and correct.

    Some of my biggest fears about OUSD have to do with admitting wrong when they are “outed.” What I would prefer from OUSD is that they have an audit department and come clean at the next regularly scheduled board meeting after an irregularity is found. In my book, a year of fully disclosing irregularities over $1,000 would restore the majority of my trust.

  • Tootsie

    Tim White is very dedicated and has always done what’s right for Oakland students. He’s a great facilities manager. I hope he doesn’t get tired of OUSD’s baloney and leave because if he does, it’ll be a great loss for OUSD and the students.

    Brown should give the money back to the children of Oakland. Shame on her!!!

    Good job, Noel!

  • Katy Murphy

    In answer to your question, Catherine, OUSD did essentially “out” the situation by releasing that first, cryptic news release on Oct. 14 about facilities protocols.

    It was titled, “Internal Review Identifies Operational Deficiencies within OUSD: Ongoing investigation reveals faulty systems and insufficient oversight.”

    True, the details and the documents materialized in response to our public information request (and a fair degree of source-pestering on my part), but OUSD did go public with its investigation first.

  • Equois

    While investigating this story the media also ought to look into the expenditures of the Oakland Unified School District’s Legal Dept. Especially exploring decisions by the Dept that are continuing to cost the District and taxpayers unnecessary expense in frivilous litigation. In one particular case the District wrongfully accused a teacher of immoral conduct based upon slanderous and libelous accusations, initially dropping the charges that were based upon a sham of an investigation that was incomplete and inconclusive, only to reinstate those same charges a year later.
    The teacher refused to be bullied into resigning and successfully challenged the wrongful suspension and attempted termination by the District. The District has had to pay the salary of this teacher while the teacher was placed on admin leave and suspension since March 2006 until March 2008 (approx $147K) plus attorney fees over $100K. The District continues to accrue legal expense and liability because it refuses to pay the teacher back salary and legal fees pursuant to state Ed Code Sec 44944 and 44946! This needs to be investigated!

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