CCSD’s systemic problem and its expensive consequences
Part 7: What the Bramby Tollen episodes reveal about CCSD corruption and slack
In late September 2013, CCSD Trustee Erin Cranor came across information indicating that she and fellow trustees had been misled regarding the actual costs of an insurance contract the district was expected to sign.
Rather than falling, those costs were to rise between $6 and $7 million.
Also, differing from earlier versions of the contract, the pending agreement now tripled the commission to be received by the district’s consulting insurance broker, Business Benefits, Inc.
Whereas BBI previously received a 0.75 percent commission on deals negotiated for the district with insurers, the new terms — of which BBI had not informed the district — would have kicked the commission up to 2.25 percent.
Moreover, because commissions under the new terms were, as before, tied to the total cost of CCSD insurance deals, BBI now had an even larger financial incentive to get the district signed to the most expensive insurance contracts possible.
Concerned, Cranor asked the legal counsel for CCSD’s board of trustees to review the new contract language.
The board attorney’s recommendation? For CCSD to end its broker-of-record relationship with BBI.
Erin Cranor sends Skorkowsky an email.
Then, on Oct. 14 — having already informed Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky verbally of the board attorney recommendation — Cranor now also mentioned it explicitly in an email:
As I conveyed verbally, it has been recommended by the Board attorney that the school district sever the January 2011 contract with the broker as soon as possible, and that a formal review be conducted by an outside auditor to thoroughly detail and document the way that all district employee health benefits have been secured / provided over the past three years beginning in September 2010 through the present.
Cranor also reminded Skorkowsky of the commitment he’d made earlier to order such a review by outside auditors:
As you know, I was and am in support of the commitment you made during the closed session on September 26… to thoroughly review how the district has accomplished health benefits from September 26, 2010 to [the] present, and I reiterated my support on the record September 28. I continue to support and appreciate your commitment to do that and I hope it is proceeding well.
However, she added,
In context of some of the other information I am putting together, I have an additional concern: It appears there may be intent to continue … the current contract with the broker, even though the contract is now known to be unfavorable to the district, and additionally to have the broker negotiate new three-year contracts for benefits for the ESEA/POA [support employees and district police] benefits group. The reason this is a concern is that it would seem to limit both our ability to sever the existing unfavorable contract, and to limit our options going forward with a plan that includes the CCEA employee group. If a three-year contract is put into place for ESEA/POA, then what options will we have other than to either leave the THT [CCEA Teachers Health Trust] in place for at least three years or add CCEA to the three-year contract? I am also concerned because I have very little information about the way the CCASAPE group gets benefits and implications for a true district-wide benefits plan / options for success.
Cranor concluded the email by referring to her preparation “to fulfill my duties as a trustee” and asking Skorkowsky for seven “pieces of information I need sooner than later.” After listing the items of information, she added:
I understand this is a lengthy request; however, I do request that it be fulfilled as soon as possible. I believe it to be my duty to arrive at a summary of my own understanding of the situation as soon as possible, and I feel that I need to be equipped to fill these gaps in information in order to fulfil my duty properly.
Ten days later, Cranor was suddenly under fierce and withering fire from the head of the district’s administrators union.
Stating conflict-of-interest guidelines for CCSD administrators is offensive?
Although Cranor’s plane had been delayed and she was not present at the school board’s Oct. 24 meeting, standing before the board and launching heated broadsides at the absent trustee was Stephen Augspurger.
A former 30-year administrator within the district, he had, upon retirement, gone on to work for CCASAPE — the Clark County Association of School Administrators & Professional-Technical Employees — for the next 17 years. For the last 15 of those, Augspurger has been the union’s executive director.
“As all of you know,” he told trustees, “this week CCASA presented to the Superintendent a request for records. That record request was aimed at Trustee Cranor.
“The genesis of that request,” said Augspurger, was language he took “offense” at contained in a draft policy statement on financial planning and budgeting that sought to tighten district fiscal controls.
Marked “PRELIMINARY DRAFT ONLY” at the top of each page in block red letters, it was one of the often-revised drafts that for years have made the rounds between trustees and the board’s audit advisory committee, as trustees have sought to make CCSD’s “Policy Governance” system more workable.
The latest heavily marked-up version of the preliminary discussion draft had come from Cranor, as a note at the bottom of the pages stated.
But Augspurger did not like any suggestion that within CCSD’s hundreds of administrators, some might possibly be tempted to do wrong.
“Specifically,” he told trustees, “if you go to section 12, in 6.04 and read through that language, I hope that you, as I, will take offense to what is being said there.”
Section 12’s actual proposed text, stripped of its hard-to-read formatting, was:
…the Superintendent will not: …
12. Enter into or allow to be entered into any contract, Memorandum of Understanding or other formal agreement without prior public disclosure of:
A. Any personal or professional relationship between any party to the agreement and any employee of the District with any ability to influence the potential decision to enter into the agreement, and
B. Any specific personal, financial or professional benefit of the agreement to any employee of the District.
Although the language in section 12 was not that different from ethical guidelines regularly seen throughout government service — “If you’ve got a conflict of interest, please make it public” — such a rule, argued Augspurger heatedly, was offensive:
Because I think the insinuation there is [that] there is wrongdoing occurring in the Clark County School District. And I think the only logical outcome, by reading that paragraph, is that wrongdoing is being done by administrators. I think that’s a disservice to the people that I represent.
A peculiar view of Policy Governance
Augspurger seemed convinced that “Policy Governance” — discussed at some length in Part Six of this series — forbade the CCSD Board of Trustees from actually overseeing the administrative apparatus of the district, or the performance of administrators within it.
In his view, he said, the proposed guidelines were “an affront to the policy governance process.”
“Frankly,” he continued, “I think it is outside the policy governance process, the manner in which this is being done.”
Did Augspurger actually mean that for trustees to seek to clearly define policy — the one area ostensibly left trustees under most accounts of the John-Carter-trademarked governance system the district had long attempted to apply — was contrary to that system?
It was true that, practically speaking, explicitly ending ambiguity regarding administrator conflicts of interest would be, for CCSD, some kind of innovation. The reforms Cranor and other trustees were seeking did increasingly attempt to leave behind the board’s long history — as seen by critics — of failing to hold accountable the effectively autonomous administrators of important district divisions.
The inflamed Augspurger then shifted, oddly, into the mode of a scornful copy editor:
I think when you look at language throughout these two ELs [Executive Limitation drafts] — the recommended language is confusing. The intent is not clear. Grammatically it is not correct. There are capital letters where it [sic] shouldn’t be. It’s just simply not appropriate.
Next, the union chief sought to reframe his criticism of item 12:
So, I guess my concern, with item number 12, there is a complete lack of transparency with that proposed language. There’s been no public discussion about those concerns. There’s been no discussion with me about any wrongdoing with administrators that I represent. And I guess I think it’s important for all of us to know, who is influencing the development of policy and regulation in the Clark County School District. And therein is the genesis of the records request. No one has come to me.
Augspurger’ assertion of “a complete lack of transparency with that proposed language” ignored the fact that, even though only a preliminary draft, item 12 was on the board’s public agenda.
It also ignored — if the union chief even was aware of it — that the trustees had been talking about CCSD’s need for a stronger fiscal governing structure for months upon months.
For example, during the April 3 and April 25 board meetings, Cranor had requested agenda items so trustees could discuss “a stronger fiscal governance structure for the school district.”
On the 25th, Trustee Lorraine Alderman observed that in district town-hall meetings, “people have been saying, ‘Well, what does the board want? What does the board want from their superintendent? How’s this person going to know what the expectations are?’”
During the same meeting, Board President Carolyn Edwards said she was “wondering whether some of that will occur within the realignment of priorities” the board was planning for the forthcoming final budget, changing some of the priorities implicit in the district’s tentative budget.
How sound fiscal governance allows excellent educational achievement
Then, on May 9, Cranor had led an extended, hour-plus long board discussion, complete with a PowerPoint presentation, on “Fiscal Governance Structure.”
The context was significant: Following former superintendent Dwight Jones’ resignation, board members acknowledged they not only needed to select a new district superintendent, but also needed to find a productive way to provide meaningful strategic leadership for the district.
Cranor’s Slide 9 highlighted a relevant pattern her research had found common to high-performing school districts all across the country:
Excellent fiscal governance and excellent strategic leadership actually go hand‐in‐hand
On Slide 10, three categories of questions that virtually guaranteed a board was not going to achieve strategic leadership of its district were listed — as well as three approaches that would achieve strategical leadership.
The first three types were familiar to longtime watchers of the board:
- Asking questions after the moment of decision had come for staff and when the board was facing the moment of decision.
- Asking questions with special care to not “micromanage.”
- Asking questions with care not to cause staff to have to do too much work to get the information.
The second three were elements of the approaches found in more successful districts:
- Strategic team development of priorities.
- Clear, ongoing responsiveness to changing student needs.
- Structures in place ahead of time to ensure that all decisions fit with agreed-upon priorities.
Cranor’s presentation also gave two quick examples of how the old configuration of “Policy Governance” operates to keep board members largely blind vis-à-vis district realities:
- The CCSD Budget and the CCSD Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) are not cross‐comparable — meaning trustees don’t have the ability that even a normal nonprofit board has: to see variances between what was budgeted and what was actually spent.
- Administrator non‐compliance with board policies can go on invisibly for long periods when the monitoring periods defined in policy-governance provisions are year-long, rather than over monthly or semi‐monthly periods.
- Thus, shorter monitoring periods can bring CCSD some of the same governance advantages that smaller school districts enjoy.
During the ensuing discussion, all trustees who spoke agreed — as did then-acting Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky —that governance policy in the district both could be, and needed to be, adjusted to allow strategic board leadership. Indeed, in many respects the district was over half-way there, argued Board President Carolyn Edwards and Cranor.
The existing policy governance methodology, they pointed out, could merely be adapted by adding ongoing oversight mechanisms to policy governance provisions — often in those provisions’ appendices.
Trustee Lorraine Alderman noted that, while trustees are responsible for the CCSD budget under state law, the board’s policy governance list of board responsibilities doesn’t even mention the budget.
Had Augspurger entirely missed six months of trustee action?
To summarize: CCSD’s trustees were already in early summer far down on the road to significant revisions to the old John-Carter-style “Policy Governance” format — well before Stephen Augspurger showed up before them to lambaste the absent Erin Cranor.
After complaining for the second time that “no one has come to me,” the union chief moved into insinuations that he himself termed offensive:
Obviously, someone has come to Erin Cranor as a trustee, and she took it upon herself to include that … definitely from her, but through the board process of policy governance. I find that an affront to all administrators. And so we have requested those records. I tell you that I am looking forward to looking through her emails to find out who is in her ear. I think it is ironic that a board member who repeatedly talks about the importance of transparency has practiced none of that in this instance. So I am anxious to find out who has been bringing those issues forward. I’m hopeful that will be revealed in the emails and the other forms of communication that we’ve requested. I guess I’m going to say something in closing that’s equally offensive: As I review the campaign contributions—
At that point, Board President Carolyn Edwards interrupted Augspurger. Although he initially assumed he was being warned not to be intentionally offensive, it was actually to merely tell him that because he had signed up to speak on two different items, he was entitled to speak for three more minutes.
Interested individuals can hear Augspurger’s entire Oct 24 declamation here. He would continue, over the next two years, to attempt to convince news reporters and virtually anyone who would listen that, under “Policy Governance,” Cranor had lacked authority to request information on October 14, 2013 from Skorkowsky.
Conceivably, Augspurger had never noticed the board’s evolving emphasis on receiving pertinent information from Skorkowsky, as well as the superintendent’s monitoring reports — such as the 15-page monitoring report submitted by Skorkowsky to the board on September 26, 2013, three weeks before the Cranor email.
Monitoring reports are the Policy Governance methodology for trustees to keep tabs on how well a superintendent’s interpretations of board policies jibe with those of the board itself.
Skorkowsky’s end-of-September report showed that he and trustees were essentially on the same page. He had explicitly begun by acknowledging the board-established policy that:
THE SUPERINTENDENT WILL NOT PERMIT THE BOARD TO BE UNINFORMED OR UNSUPPORTED IN ITS WORK.
Then, under “Superintendent’s Interpretation,” he responded:
The Board will receive pertinent District information and the necessary resources to fulfill their duties as Trustees.
Under “Supporting Data/Information,” he wrote:
For decisional purposes, the information provided in the Board meeting agendas must be factual, contain approximate costs and perspectives, as well as afford the Trustees an overview of the item requested, and if applicable, how it will affect student achievement.
The superintendent and/or his designee will provide information to Trustees related to the constituent district they serve, when requested.
FURTHER, WITHOUT LIMITING THE SCOPE OF THE FOREGOING BY THIS ENUMERATION, THE SUPERINTENDENT WILL NOT:
1. FAIL TO COMMUNICATE DISTRICT INSTRUCTIONAL AND OPERATIONAL OBJECTIVES, GOALS, AND RESULTS,
OR FAIL TO PROVIDE ACCURATE DATA WHICH REFLECTS SUCCESS, AS WELL AS THE NEED FOR IMPROVEMENT.
Cranor’s requests of Skorkowsky appear well within the bounds of the limitations that the board’s policy-governance provisions place on trustees.
So what else, if anything, was actually behind Augspurger’s singularly “offensive” behavior?
Coming in Part Eight: The longstanding ties between CCASAPE’s union leadership and Business Benefits, Inc.
Links to the entire eight-part investigative series
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Steven Miller is managing editor of Nevada Journal and senior vice president at the Nevada Policy Research Institute