Claremont Insider: Shakedown

Sunday, October 16, 2011


[Stracci] had a fleet of freight hauling trucks that made him a fortune primarily because his trucks could travel with a heavy overload and not be stopped and fined by highway weight inspectors. These trucks helped ruin the highways and then his roadbuilding firm, with lucrative state contracts, repaired the damage wrought. It was the kind of operation that would warm any man’s heart, business of itself creating more business.
- Mario Puzo, The Godfather


Watching the Claremont Unified School District in action, one can't help but marvel at the kooky logic employed by the CUSD Board of Education. For instance, when the school board needed help with its last superintendent search, they turned to Pivot Learning Partners, the consulting firm that identified Terry Nichols, the district's last superintendent.

You'll also recall that Nichols cut out on us 18 months into his $196,650-a-year contract and left CUSD in bind, in answer to which the school board turned to....Pivot Learning Partners!  Board member Jeff Stark explained the deep thinking behind this move, saying that this is the way we've always done things.  Like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy's football, we keep going back for more.

To make matters worse, for its interim superintendent the CUSD board hired PLP consultant Gloria Johnston (photo, left), paying her the same amount the district paid Nichols.  We wonder how hard it was for Johnston to tell the board that the results of PLP's exhaustive search was, for the time being, herself.

As we've seen time and again, the CUSD board of education prefers to overpay for work that could easily be done in-house.  For a fraction of the money they paid PLP and Johnston, the board could have had their assistant superintendent fill in for Nichols while they conducted their search.  They could have simply asked PLP or some other firm for a list of names and then interviewed the candidates themselves rather than counting on PLP to winnow the list down to a couple choices.   But, as Jeff Stark likes to say, that's not how we do things in Claremont.

Incidentally, these education consultant gigs must be pretty lucrative.  We've discovered that Interim Superintendent Johnston doesn't limit her consultative work to PLP.   A Fairfield-based company called Total School Solutions lists Johnston as a member of their team. According to the TSS website, Johnston is a TSS Senior Consultant. Here's her bio:

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We don't know much about TSS or what exactly Johnston has done there, but we did find a mention of TSS in a 3/2/08 Modesto Bee article about a brouhaha in the Waterford School District: continuing coverage: School budget crisis

Report rips Waterford spending
Schools chief defends his 'triage, expedient' actions


WATERFORD -- While the Waterford Unified School District stares at an upcoming 10 percent budget cut, the board of trustees heard a legal report critical of relaxed financial practices.

The report at a recent meeting covered three main areas of unauthorized or unexpected payments:

Stipends totaling $25,000 paid to two principals over two years, Jose Aldoca and Don Davis

Administrative pay raises of 5.2 percent, including a raise for Superintendent Howard Cohen, that were paid five months before the board approved them

A contract with a Bay Area consulting firm, Total School Solutions, was ratified as a $33,000 agreement to polish the district's master plan but turned out to be an open-ended contract that cost the district $124,000 before it was canceled with the work unfinished.

Maybe, contrary to Jeff Stark's philosophy, this is the way things are done everywhere.  Another pillar of Claremont exceptionalism bites the dust.


If you hadn't noticed, the district (and now Johnston) doesn't limit its use of consultants to headhunting duties.  When the matter of inter-district transfers (IDT's) started becoming a hot-button issue in the current school board election, the school district, needing to help prop up incumbent Hilary LaConte ahead of the November vote, commissioned Bob Blattner and his firm Blattner & Associates to write a report on the impact of IDTs on CUSD. 

The so-called Blattner Report is posted on the CUSD website.  It's presented as a sort of cost-benefit analysis and concludes not only that the overall impact of IDT's is positive, but that discontinuing the acceptance of IDT's into the district would be detrimental to CUSD's budget because whatever savings might be achieved by eliminating unneeded teaching positions would be eaten up by the loss of state money the district receives for each student.

Here's the report:
Blattner Report 9-15-11

It's too bad Blattner didn't bother to provide any of the actual data he used in his report.  For all we know, he could be making this stuff up out of whole cloth.   He is, after all, a former Sacramento Bee education writer who is known as much for being a Sacramento lobbyist as he is for his other work with school districts.  Let's face it, the school district had to commission a political document to prove its premise - that we need IDT's. To that end, they didn't need a detailed, rigorous study. They had to get someone whom the district could count on to shape the narrative.

You'll note that CUSD doesn't bother to produce the back-up data either.  For all their talk about being transparent and involving the community in their decision-making, they're still stuck in their top-heavy hierarchy issuing edicts from on high.  If we know one thing about Claremont, it's that you can get a report to say just about anything you want as long as you don't provide the data to back up your claims.  Just say it strongly enough with plenty of authority, and pretty soon the education beat writers will be citing it as if it were fact rather than interpretive art.

This no doubt explains why CUSD slow rolls requests for what should be public information.  Rather than just posting all the raw figures on their website so that the community could assess them and have a rational debate, CUSD had to get Bob Blattner to explain it all to us.  And if you ask for the data, they don't just delay, they change the subject by having their surrogates call you a racist - "You don't want those kids here."

Compare the district's website to the city of Claremont's, where one can watch videos of old City Council meetings or peruse the agenda materials and staff reports at one's leisure.  For all the complaints we have had about City Hall, access to public information is no longer one of them, and that didn't improve until the City Council turned over and the upper management changed.  Before that, the stonewalling public information requests received was every bit as heavy-handed as what one experiences with CUSD today.


So, to recap: Consultants salivate at the thought of dipping into the CUSD money stream.  Remember Jared Boigon, the consultant the district hired at a cost of $25,000 to conduct the polling the school board used to buttress its arguments for the $95 million Measure CL bond?  Boigon leveraged that contract into a campaign consultant job working for the front men the district roped into running the Yes on CL campaign last year.  For campaign funding, at Boigon's suggestion, the Yes on CL folks then hit up the very consultants and contractors who stood to benefit from the bond and would have undoubtedly sought to recoup their campaign donations by working those costs into their future billing.

Of course, the district assured us that there was no conflict of interest involved in the $150,000-plus the Yes on CL campaign raised from those consultants and contractors.  No problem at all.  If the school board says it, it must be true.

So we weren't terribly surprised when we learned that Gloria Johnston's Total School Solutions employers are partners with Bob Blattner's company. In fact, TSS issued a press release trumpeting the synergy that was about to be loosed on the world when the two consulting firms teamed up:

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They promise to deliver their prospective school district clients to efficiency levels undreamt of outside the Jersey road construction business.  We have no problem with that.  It's just that it would have been nice if Gloria Johnston and the school board would have told us before contracting with Bob Blattner for his expert opinion on IDT's. 

As we said, no surprise.  It's Claremont, after all.  It's how we do here.