CCSD’s systemic problem and its expensive consequences
Part 6: Purchasing director shows staffers her disdain for trustees
It was 2009 when CCSD’s purchasing director let employees and consultants know she was intent on keeping district trustees in the financial dark.
As reported earlier in this series, Bramby Tollen directed SAP programming consultants to disappear when “a board member was coming to the department and she did not want the board member to see the consultants working in the department.”
The trustee was Carolyn Edwards, CCSD’s board president at the time, according to a Nevada Journal source.
Ad hoc candor
For a powerful CCSD central-office director to maneuver to maintain trustee ignorance is certainly noteworthy.
In the long run, however, what may have been even more significant was the mere fact, in this instance, of Tollen’s candor — her frank sharing with mere employees and consultants of what she was up to.
Although most likely inadvertent and not consciously intended, it still suggests both confidence that her power in the district was effectively beyond challenge and also that misleading trustees was routine.
Four years later, however, when Tollen was involved in yet another revelation of information that might interest the board, the results for her would be more consequential.
According to Nevada Journal sources, the 2013 episode began with a letter sent by Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky out to business leaders and also board trustees.
The note indicated that CCSD had in the works new insurance arrangements that were going to save the district significant money.
Trustee Erin Cranor — elected to the board in the fall of 2010 on a promise to “do my homework“ and “ask the questions to which we all want the answers“ — contacted then-purchasing director Bramby Tollen and requested a briefing.
It was during that briefing that Tollen allowed Cranor to see the actual insurance contracts Skorkowsky had mentioned.
Contrary to what board members had been told — Tollen would eventually testify in 2016 — Cranor learned that CCSD was not seeing any savings in the new insurance contracts.
Instead, district costs actually would increase by some $6 to $7 million.
As reported last week in Part Five of this series, Tollen testified in an Employee-Management Relations Board hearing that:
There were several contracts… A contract for vision, a contract for dental, and a contract for health, in general. And … parties had led the Board to believe that there was cost savings. And that was true of the vision; the vision costs a million dollars less than it had before. But it wasn’t true of the health. The health actually costs $7 million more or 8 [million more]. And there was a net loss or a net overpayment, if you will, of $6-to-$7 million.
And so when the contracts were spoken of sometimes, the vision would be pulled out and it would make it sound like there was cost savings, but that was only one contract and it wasn’t the net effect. And so … when Trustee Cranor came to visit me, we looked through that and she was extremely surprised and very upset because those dollar figures are supposed to be disclosed and approved by the Board, and she didn’t believe they had been.
According to Tollen, a day or so later Cranor came by and told her that the county district attorney’s office, which gives the trustees legal advice, had been shown the contract, and “that there were a lot of upset people now.”
Tollen also said Cranor had asked “protection for me, because she was afraid that I was in harm’s way.” And that “the DA had suggested I become familiar with the whistleblowers protection,” Tollen added.
Thus in 2013 — as in 2009 — ad hoc candor from Tollen was again raising eyebrows.
An unplanned peek behind the curtain
Now, however, the district superintendent was no longer Walt Rulffes, widely seen within CCSD to have always had Tollen’s back. Instead, as of June 2013, it was Pat Skorkowsky, who, relying on top staff, had happily touted the deal.
The new revelations, however, appeared to suggest that top staffers may have intentionally misled the new superintendent — raising the specter of possible corruption within CCSD’s central office.
Other practices by top administrators also, in the light of day, looked dubious.
For example, the very contract that Cranor inspected — and that raised net CCSD insurance costs by over $6 million — had not only been written to effectively bar the district from exiting that vendor relationship, but appeared intended to exclude trustees from any authority to amend the deal’s expensive terms.
Explicitly, the contract stated:
The only officer with authority to execute an amendment to this contract is Jeff Weiler, the Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”) of the District.
Weiler had also been the sole district signatory to the agreement.
By the date Cranor saw the actual terms of the deal, however, Weiler had suddenly, three weeks before, left employment with CCSD for a position on the East Coast.
Not only did his departure underline the incoherence of a contract that made him the sole person able to amend its terms. The suddenness with which he’d left also raised questions.
Throughout the earlier part of 2013 a new push had been developing among trustees, spearheaded by Cranor, for a “stronger fiscal structure” and tighter fiscal controls for the district.
That effort would run aground in 2014, after eliciting pronounced hostility from the CCSD administrator’s union. However, in 2013 that push might already have seemed threatening to the district CFO.
Regardless, the fact that Weiler’s insurance deal had failed to recognize the primary authority of CCSD trustees was only the logical outcome of a path trustees had long been walking.
Repeatedly, despite much criticism, the CCSD board has embraced a “model” for district “governance” that minimizes its own oversight over the hundreds of administrators and passes that responsibility off to the superintendent.
Called “Policy Governance” by its founder and marketer, John Carver, it is actually a commercially trademarked model for how the boards of organizations “should” operate.
Initially, when introducing the approach, the system’s marketers and trainers make much of distinctions between “ends” and “means.” The former are supposedly to be defined by board members for the district, while the latter are to be determined by staff.
Such distinctions seem to quickly evaporate into practical confusion, however, when interpretive difficulties arise.
Consider minutes from a two-day “training” in the model for CCSD board members conducted by Carver in April 2006. At the bottom of page 4 Carver is quoted as saying “the ends are related to the entire school system,” but “in policy, whenever you see services and programs, it is a Means, not an Ends statement.” It is a statement entirely consistent with the initial end-means explanation.
At the top of page 5, however, Carver is said to state “that Ends are also determined by staff” and “Means are anything which are not Ends.”
Trustees, attempting to derive some workable, practical direction amid entirely natural confusion, appear to have fastened especially on one Carver remark made during that 2006 training and preserved on its audio recording — that their role was to “pass the policy,” while “the superintendent’s next step [is] to interpret the policy.” And about that interpretation, Carver said, the board “should keep its mouth shut…”
It ‘makes us all look really ridiculous’
The all-too-common consequences of CCSD trustees’ attempt to embrace Carver-style “Policy Governance” were evident in a 2010 board meeting attended by Nevada Journal researcher Karen Gray.
During the meeting’s public comment session, members of the public had complained about items totaling over $22.5 million for 13 district contracts on the board’s supposedly uncontroversial “consent” agenda:
… Then it was revealed [wrote Gray] that the so-called “board approval” being sought was entirely spurious, because those contracts were already “in the works,” and done under the authority of Superintendent Rulffes and, to some degree, were “already contractual.”
But there was more.
Also on the consent agenda was an item supposedly seeking board “authorization to submit” an application for a federal “Investing in Innovation” (i3) Validation Grant, to be used for the district’s empowerment program.
As back-up information, staff included a four-page summary of the grant’s goals and budget estimate. The details ignited debate among trustees.
Trustees Edwards and Moulton saw the grant as a policy issue since among its goals was increasing the number of empowerment schools to 123 and increasing school-site budget control from 50 to 74 percent.
Trustee Young, however, argued that while the philosophical aspects of empowerment schools are a board policy issue, the grant was really about funding and implementing the empowerment program — and was, thus, an operational issue.
When Rulffes then revealed that the grant application had already been submitted, that sparked a parliamentary motion to approve the grant’s submission with the understanding that Rulffes would create an operational procedure allowing board input in future applications.
Rulffes then advised the board that this would constitute a policy shift regarding grant development, to which Edwards responded that trustees should at least be “informed” (a requirement under Policy Governance). To which Rulffes replied: “That’s the purpose of this item.”
The board’s disconnect was not lost on the audience — or even some trustees.
“We need to know it before,” [Trustee Deanna] Wright admonished. “We can’t vote on something if it’s already been postmarked and off to the IRS or the government. That makes us all look really ridiculous, and, I’m frustrated that it happens to us time and time again.”
Perhaps the relative authority of superintendent and trustees would be better understood publicly if similar agenda items in the future called for “ratification” rather than “approval.”
The consent agenda wasn’t alone in spotlighting the board’s lack of knowledge.
Just a week earlier, the school district filed a counter-complaint against the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees (administrators union) in a pending Employee-Management Relations Board litigation. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, school board President Terri Janison was not aware that, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, the lawsuit had been filed, nor that a law firm had been hired at an hourly rate of $250.
Given the rapidly growing hole in CCSD’s operations budget, public speakers at the meeting criticized the board for its ignorance regarding the expensive contract to defend the school board after giving perks to some employees while others were being reduced in force.
Gray concluded her commentary by writing:
So, yes, Trustee Wright is correct: The board does look ridiculous. However, it’s not because staff postmarked and mailed a grant request before informing the board. Rather, it is because the board insists on a system that calls for precisely that — while making trustees little more than rubber stamps.
In the seven years following that particular CCSD board meeting/imbroglio, the board’s credibility has only continued to decline.
Today, bipartisan majorities in the Nevada Legislature have concluded that the board itself, like the district structure it has long fought to preserve, is an obstacle to the very educational goals it proclaims.
“Policy Governance” has been fundamental to this obstruction — masking a cozy arrangement that for decades has allowed top insiders to operate with minimal oversight. All the slack given administrators, however, has cost the district much of its credibility: The impression spreads that trustees publicly pretend to direct the district, while actually being patronized by powerful, highly paid district administrators.
Meanwhile, the more fundamental problem persists: the massive size of a district far too large and complex for the classic top-down kind of administration that works in small organizations.
It’s the situation cogently described by Lydia Segal in Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools, and discussed in parts one and two of this series: administrative fiefdoms taking advantage of the lack of genuine oversight from overburdened superintendents or out-of-the-loop trustees. This situation has long fed disproportionate waste, fraud and corruption in the country’s largest school districts, Segal demonstrates.
Since CCSD is also one of the country’s largest school districts, a natural question would concern the extent of its corruption. Given the Rocha and other scandals getting into the news in recent years — notwithstanding the district’s well-known hostility to transparency — that extent would seem likely to be significant.
Economist Mark A. Zupan, currently the president of Alfred University in western New York state, has devoted some attention to the question of how government insiders manage to divert resources from serving the welfare of the public to their own benefit, and do so seemingly without consequences.
“What becomes apparent,” he writes, “is that to whatever degree” groups supplying government services are “not perfectly accountable to a nation’s citizens, government insiders can exploit the attendant slack for their own ends.”
As economists are inclined to do, Zupan expresses this dynamic within a formula: P = G x S x I — where the relevant factors exist as functions:
P = profits to government insiders,
G= the potential gains to government insiders from their positions at the expense of the public interest,
S = the slackor leeway in the relationship between citizens and their public servants, and thus also the degree to which the public is able to, and chooses to, hold government insiders accountable, and
I = the extent to which government insiders are interested in exploiting that slack for their personal benefit.
Functions S and I range in value between 0 and 1. Thus wherever “public officials are perfectly accountable,” writes Zupan, “there is no slack in the relationship with their citizens (S = 0) and thus no profits accruing to government insiders (P =0) since they are unable to hijack the political process for their benefit.”
At the opposite extreme, however, he observes:
…if public officials are entirely unaccountable, the slack in the relationship between them and their citizens is at a maximum (S =1). Assuming that there are gains to be captured (G) and full interest in securing those gains (I = 1), the inside job will proceed unrestrained, with the profit extracted by government insiders limited only by the gains that can be extracted (G).
Considering the billions of dollars that move through the Clark County School District, “G” here is clearly sizable. Additionally, recent history indicates that “I” is, also.
Unfortunately, profound slack appears to exist in the accountability relationship between Clark County parents and taxpayers on one side and the CCSD central-office bureaucracy on the other — courtesy of the lack of oversight spawned by “Policy Governance.”
Coming in Part Seven: When reform efforts surface, The Empire Strikes Back
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Steven Miller is managing editor of Nevada Journal and senior vice president at the Nevada Policy Research Institute
Links to the entire eight-part investigative series