Education Matters: Foundation on shaky ground?
San Dieguito Union High School District foundations raise money to fund athletics, robotics, science labs, music, art, theater and other areas in the educational environment to supplement and enrich primary coursework.
Like the district’s other foundations, Canyon Crest Academy’s is a non-profit organization with a paid executive director and a board composed of volunteer parents and community members.
The work these dedicated volunteers do is invaluable, and the money given by generous donors to support each foundation’s mission enhances learning and the educational experience in ways too numerous to list.
Although there’s no reason to suspect that donor money has been misused, questions have arisen about the management and operation of CCA’s foundation from numerous sources who have requested anonymity for fear of litigation or other retribution.
There have been charges of harassment, ruined reputations, tears shed, rumors of internal unrest, multiple board resignations, secret meetings and allegations of misconduct.
Whether it’s simply personality conflicts, political infighting, or activity more serious is undetermined. But attorneys for the school district and the foundation are now involved, so something is clearly amiss.
Because the CCA Foundation (CCAF) runs independently from the San Dieguito district, ferreting out what’s going on is not so simple (it’s not simple with government agencies either, but the dotted line between foundations and school districts complicates matters).
My Public Records request to the school district for the release of emails and documents between and among a number of key individuals was filed on Aug. 25, two days after a private meeting was held between a high-level school district staff member, an attorney representing the school district, and two CCAF board members.
Two days later, on Aug. 27, all CCAF board members received this notice from the CCAF Webmaster, informing them that “routine maintenance” would begin on the foundation’s server, shutting down all foundation email accounts for several days:
Hello CCAF Board Directors & Committee Heads,
Today we will begin our routine maintenance to improve our ability to reach our constituency, through our best mechanism: email.
In a minute, you will temporarily loose [sic] access to your email account as we undergo testing. You should expect email to return early next week.
We apologize for the inconvenience. Please refer to the attached email list if business arises and you need to contact each other.
Curious about the timing, I called CCAF’s Webmaster to ask what’s involved with “routine maintenance.” After some hesitation, he said he couldn’t answer that question.
When I asked who authorized the routine maintenance and if it was CCAF executive director Joanne Couvrette, he said, “I’m not going to continue with this phone call, I’m sorry.”
“We are making sure all of our security is in place,” Couvrette said, explaining the reason for the routine maintenance.
Couvrette said the request to shut the system down for several days did not come from her and that any CCAF board member can ask for this “maintenance.”
It seems clear this was not routine maintenance that happens every year on Aug. 27.
Because my records request only applies to school district accounts (with the extension sduhsd.net) and not the foundation’s (canyoncrestfoundation.org), I asked Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, to delay or stop the routine maintenance, or at least oversee it.
But he said the district has no power or control over the foundation’s internal emails and domain name, which is run independently of the district’s.
That may be true (and it is), but does the district not have any oversight of school foundations that raise funds and speak on behalf of the schools they serve – especially after a foundation takes action to perform “routine maintenance” on its email accounts two days after a Public Records request was filed?
Foundation directors and board members, and the foundations by extension, are seen as under the umbrella of the school district, a public agency.
They are regarded as the face of the school, working alongside the school’s principal and staff – everyone together representing the school and its interests at events and activities throughout the year.
Although foundations are technically separate entities from schools and school districts, overlap exists.
School districts, because of common interests and a close working relationship with their foundations, do have some responsibility to ensure that legal and ethical standards are in place.
The possibility exists, remote as it may be, that information during this routine maintenance might have been altered or destroyed, even if inadvertent – which means the district should have interfered to prevent the shutdown.
San Dieguito’s hands-off attitude was disappointing and troubling.
Just after the “routine” maintenance was initiated on the CCAF server, current CCAF president Carolyn Cohen called a special meeting for Monday, Aug. 31 of all the voting members of the CCAF board, notifying them on their private email addresses.
When I asked to see the agenda and if the meeting was open to the public, Cohen responded by email, “This is a special meeting of the board called for voting members only, so it is not open to the public. The meeting does not have a stated agenda.”
“No agenda?” I said. “Isn’t that unusual? Members have no idea what the meeting is for?”
Her reply: “According to our By-Laws Section VII.14 Manner of Giving Notice of Special Meetings, ‘The notice shall state the date, time, and place of the Special Meeting. The notice need not notify the purpose of the meeting.’ Thank you.”
As it turned out, the board’s agenda was to vote one member off the board who was making uncomfortable inquiries.
Curious about CCAF finances, I asked to see financial statements, which were provided to me by Couvrette who was very timely and responsive to my request.
Although I’m no accountant, everything appears to be in order.
For the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the foundation had a total income of $1,078,208 and total expenses of $1,185,502 (this includes $170,545 in cost of goods sold), leaving a deficit of $107,294.
The largest line items under Income were for individual contributions, as follows: $308,296 to athletics, $156,468 to the Envision arts program, and $108,011 to the school’s Ravens Fund.
The biggest expenses were recorded as follows: $361,460 for athletics, $232,774 for Envision, and $144,528 for academic-related support (of which $35,168 was for non-employee compensation).
Total cost for salaries and related expenses came to $108,741. Of that, the largest were: $70,000 for officer and director salaries, $18,392 for contractor expenses, and $12,449 for other salaries and wages.
Other management and general expenses included $17,017 for credit card merchant fees.
Effective foundation leaders work with the school’s administration to establish a respectful working environment and bring volunteer board members together in ways that defuse discord and promote cooperation.
No easy task, granted. Working with strong-willed, high-energy school volunteers can be like herding cats. But mediating, finding common ground and establishing consensus is the lofty goal.
Perhaps tension is to be expected when dedicated volunteers, most of whom are go-getters with strong personalities and drive, all come together on a board. Opinions will inevitably differ on direction and priorities for allocating money, so a natural tendency for conflict exists.
But it’s concerning when two former board presidents have resigned under duress, both claiming complaints against them were false, unfair and unjust.
Foundations raise money for a good cause, and students benefit enormously from the dedication of volunteers committed to enhancing the educational opportunities of hundreds of students each year. CCA’s foundation is no exception.
But when disquieting allegations surface, parents and community members have a right to know what, if anything, is going on.
My Public Records request was supposed to be fulfilled Sept. 8. But on Sept. 4, SDUHSD’s director of purchasing and risk management Christina Bennett said in an email that the district needed an extension and will respond to my request no later than Sept. 28.
Then we’ll see whether or not this is much ado about nothing.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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