Reynolds Grand Jury Report to Parlier Unified

cdr image at parlier

School district responds to report
Grand jury suggests superintendent used district money for meals, tech, travels
By Amy Wu / The Post
Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2015 9:26 AM PDT
Editor’s note: This is the first in a special series of articles and profiles about the investigative findings related to the Fresno County grand jury report.

Investigations by independent parties confirmed that the Fresno county grand jury report released was largely accurate.

This was confirmed during a special board meeting held on Oct. 13 and Oct. 15, where the investigators presented their findings to the board and public. The reports from the investigators were made available to the public.

The district is required to respond to the grand jury report’s recommendations by Monday, Oct. 19. There are 15 recommendations including setting up a system of fiscal checks and balances and creating new policies regarding contracts and nepotism.

“Overall the grand jury had it pretty right,” said John Gray, president of School Services of America who was hired by the district for the investigation.

“Most everything in this is true,” said another investigator who worked on the case.

The Oct. 13 meeting was attended by residents, school administrators and staff, parents and other members of the public. The atmosphere was mostly somber with few comments from the public, and the occasional gasps and shake of heads as investigators went down the list of transgressions.

The grand jury report blasted the Parlier Unified School District superintendent, administrators and board of trustees for a variety of transgressions including excessive spending habits including meals, travels and contracts with vendors.

Investigators found that many of the meals and the travel were either not documented with receipts, or labeled as “team building” or “supplies,” with little evidence of deliverable.

The report also criticized the district for lack of transparency with board meetings, and overstaffing administrators for a district where student population actually declined.

As a result of the report, PUSD Superintendent Gerardo Alvarez was placed on leave of absence by the board.

After the report was released, the district hired Gray and his team, and separately private investigator Chris Reynolds to investigate the report. The Fresno County Office of Education tapped the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to conduct a separate investigation. The results of that investigation have yet to be released.
Gray said he was confident that FCMAT would do a comprehensive job. He had initially suggested that FCMAT conduct the entire investigation as he said he already had a full plate of projects, but the district wanted a thorough investigation.

“My impression is they (the district) really wanted to do it right,” he said.

Gray and Matt Phillips, also of School Services of California, Inc., specifically investigated the financial aspects of the report while Chris Reynolds focused on the personnel side.

Here are some of their key findings from School Services of California:

• There is no evidence that the two trips to Harvard University in 2014 — costing the district nearly $100,000 and involving the Superintendent, trustees and key administrators, benefitted student performance. According to the report, Edward Lucero, the acting superintendent, Lou Saephan, assistant superintendent, and current board members, Jackie Garcia-Escoto, Edgar Pelayo and Parlier high principal Alan Macedo attended the second trip. After the Oct. 13 meeting Saephan, assistant superintendent, said during the meeting that the trip was very helpful including gaining knowledge from districts around the country. The program included observing actual classroom instruction in “instructional round” style.

• The district, especially the superintendent, spent district money to hold meetings at restaurants when they could have been held at the district building at no cost. Examples included a $204.44 dinner at Fleming’s Steak House in San Diego.

•Administrative regulations, including for that regarding travel claims are vague; twenty-two out of 64 transactions investigators reviewed had no itemized receipt or no receipt.

• The Superintendent’s credit limit is $5,000, and but in January 2015 the Superintendent — without notifying the Business Department or receiving board approval — opened another credit card with a $50,000 limit. Card activity saw a sharp rise from over $10,000 in purchases from Apple, the Harvard trip and other meeting expenses. Numerous expenses did not have receipts.

• The Sunshine Club fund, launched in July 2013 with $2,850 in employee contributions, was meant to pay for gifts or birthday cards for district employees. The Superintendent used the fund to reimburse himself for $1,109 in “meeting supplies.” This included $464.88 for a one-night stay at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley. The Napa trip included Alvarez and his wife, and former board member Mary Helen Villanueva and her husband. Alvarez told investigator Chris Reynolds that the trip was for “team building” with Villanueva. There wasn’t evidence that Villaneuva knew that her expenses were paid for by the Sunshine Club fund.

• Despite a decline in student enrollment since a peak of 4,321 students in the 2006-07 academic year the district has grown the number of administrators. Some positions duplicated each other.

• Legal costs skyrocketed 300 percent from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, in great part due to the costs related to the disciplinary actions in the aftermath of the grand jury report.
• The district spent an estimated $60,000 in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 for parents to send their children to schools outside of the district.

• Parlier Unified underperforms compared to surrounding districts. According to the data provided, 22.2 percent qualify for University of California entrance compared to a statewide average of 41.9 percent.

The data according to Rafael Iniguez, PUSD’s Career Technical Education Director, is not accurate since it is limited to UC. In 2015, 42 percent of Parlier high seniors were eligible for university admission. Iniguez added that the data bases used by the grand jury report and Parlier High School are different.

“There are issues in the way data is being tagged, so there could be a big margin for error,” Iniguez said. Gray concurred with Iniguez and said that indeed there could be margin for error by using different data bases.

Parlier Unified’s seven schools serve 3,400 students in seven schools with 416 employees. About 99 percent of the 3,400 students in the Parlier Unified School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

After the meeting, Lucero said the presentations had, “no surprises.”

“I thought both presentations were very well presented, I thought Chris Reynolds was very thorough and very informative,” said Lucero.