In 2004, Miguel Baldoni was working as a substitute teacher in rural Appalachian Ohio when he heard about a new charter school opening on the East Side of San Jose. He uprooted himself, came to California and got a job teaching chemistry at the Academica Calmecac, which was run by the Mexican American Community Services Agency (MACSA).
He says he was pleased that the position offered him a chance to change the lives of at-risk students who had been left behind by traditional public schools. But he freely admits that the exceptional retirement package promised to all MACSA teachers really cemented his decision to pack his bags and come to Silicon Valley with 10 bucks in his pocket.
“This was the biggest reason why I took this job,” Baldoni says.
Baldoni says he had his preliminary interview with Xavier Campos, who was then MACSA’s chief operating officer and is now running for a seat on the San Jose City Council. Campos enthusiastically described the benefits that Baldoni, MACSA’s first teacher, would be getting: CalSTRS, the state-run teachers retirement program, would take 8 percent of Baldoni’s paycheck; MACSA would match it dollar for dollar, and then they’d add an additional 1 percent to it. “That’s pretty sweet,” Baldoni remembers thinking. “When I was in my interview, I was like ‘Oh my God, yeah!’ You just couldn’t find a job with that kind of retirement.”
It wasn’t until a year after he began teaching at MACSA, Baldoni says, that he noticed something was amiss. When he went to check his CalSTRS account online, instead of a couple thousand dollars, he discovered that only $162 had been deposited. A month later, his account still read $162. Baldoni began asking around. “I started asking other teachers, and sure enough, once we opened that Pandora’s box, then everybody else started going, ‘Yeah, I don’t have it either.’”
At first, Baldoni says, MACSA’s administration insisted that the retirement payments were stalled as a result of the agency’s cyclical pay structure. He was told to wait a few months, and that the money would show up. Nothing happened. Then, he says, the administrators told the faculty that there was a wage freeze, but assured them once again that their retirement money was on its way. Nothing happened.
In 2007, the teachers finally brought the issue to the attention of MACSA chief financial officer Benjamin Tan. Baldoni says they still couldn’t find out what was going on. “We didn’t know who was telling us the truth, or who was lying. We didn’t know anything was wrong. All we knew was that we weren’t getting the money that was promised us.”
Baldoni says he and his colleagues got the run-around for years. First, he says, they were told that MACSA sent the money to the East Side Union High School District, and then that it had been send directly to CalSTRS. When the teachers contacted CalSTRS, they were told no money was coming from MACSA.Gordon Smith, a former math and music teacher at MACSA, says the same thing happened when he approached Tan, who has since resigned.
“I know for a fact, three different times, [Tan] told us to follow a path that lead to nowhere, so he knew,” Smith says.
“You couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone,” Baldoni says. “There’s that point, where you don’t want to believe it, where you think it’s just you, or that it’s an honest mistake. We’re not naive, but you never think your employer is going to lie to you.”
In late August 2009, Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores Carr received a 38-page report concerning MACSA, commissioned by the county Office of Education. In a letter to Carr, county Superintendent Charles Weis wrote that the report “found evidence of apparent illegal fiscal practices and misappropriation of funds” at the school.According to the report, MACSA surreptitiously skimmed $400,000 that was earmarked for its employees’ pensions—practically cleaning out the account. Without the faculty’s or staff’s knowledge, the money was instead used for operational costs to keep the insolvent school up and running.
Law and Politics
The report has been on Carr’s desk for more than a year. The delay in concluding an investigation has raised some questions about the outgoing DA’s willingness to prosecute her political supporters.
Campos, who announced his candidacy for San Jose City Council’s District 5 around that time, has denied any knowledge of the teacher’s pension skimming going on at his longtime employer. Last March, in an interview at Tacos Al Carbon on Story Road, Campos refused to answer any questions on the record. “I’m proud of my time at MACSA, but other than that I have no comment,” he said. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
According to the report, in December 2008, the cash-strapped MACSA Board went into closed session to consider an “extraordinary” severance package for Campos, who was in the process of leaving his post. The severance package was later denied.
By the time these allegations started to come to light, Baldoni had spent five years teaching at the charter school.
“I had less in my [retirement] account than people who had been there only two years,” he says.
Finally, in early 2009, MACSA CEO Olivia Soza-Mendiola and the administration called a meeting of faculty and staff.
“She said, yes, we are having cash flow problems, and they were using money that was earmarked for the schools to pay for other programs,” Baldoni says. “She didn’t actually say she was misappropriating funds.”
Soza-Mendiola resigned a few weeks later. “For three years, I knew we were getting screwed,” Baldoni says. “But we weren’t going to leave, because those kids, we were really invested in their lives.
“Teachers are basically the parents of those kids for eight hours a day. And those kids get really attached. Even when you know you’re getting screwed, it’s very difficult to tell a kid you know needs you, ‘To hell with you, see you later.’”
The two former MACSA teachers say nobody was minding the store under the leadership of CEO Olivia Soza-Mendiola, COO Xavier Campos and CFO Benjamin Tan.
“[MACSA] was all about creating this sense of community,” Smith says. “It was odd, because when we were doing that, there would also be this half-hour-long session where they’d take the teachers aside and basically lie to us. “It was incongruous. We wanted to believe that there was good faith going on there, but we didn’t see any change.”
Smith says that he has known Xavier Campos since they played softball together as teenagers. Smith describes the current District 5 San Jose council candidate, who worked his way up to the COO position by spending 20 years with the organization, as a “MACSA lifer.” Asked directly whether he believes Campos knew about the pension scheme, Smith will not come right out and say; but he seems skeptical of the veracity of the council candidate’s denials.
“Three people ran that place,” Smith says. “It’s not feasible that only one of them knew. It’s impossible that none of them knew. So, it’s likely that more than one of them knew.”
On Sept. 15, the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce released a nine-page document which seems to show that Campos was more involved in MACSA’s financial decisions than he has admitted. According to documents obtained by outside auditors Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, Campos was the only officer at MACSA with a direct line of oversight regarding the school’s operations. Furthermore, documents show that he was a member of the MACSA financial committee, and directly handled the sale of a MACSA-owned property to solve the school’s “cash flow problem” in 2008.
The audit openly challenges “the truthfulness of [Campos’] statements,” and concludes that he knew—or should have known—about the decision to drain the retirement account.
Campos has refused to address the audit, other than to paint it as an unfounded attack. And he has steadfastly continued to insist—in the face of evidence to the contrary—that his involvement with MACSA was limited to working with kids in its gang-intervention program.
Baldoni is dubious about that claim as well. “I was there from 2004, and I never saw Xavier counsel a kid about gangs,” Baldoni says. “The gang intervention [program] was supposed to be classes after school that dealt with gang intervention, but that wasn’t Xavier. That was Mario [Ozuna-Sanchez]. Maybe he did it at other schools, but not at our schools. I know for a fact that he never did it at our school.”
Smith has the same impression.
“The body language of the kids I saw when they were talking to him was more like ‘Who is this guy?’ Not, ‘Oh Xavier, let’s talk,’” Smith says. “[Campos’] involvement with the school directly, as a member of the school community, was minimal. I think his influence in policy was huge. But, when I would see him there, I wouldn’t see him talking to any of the students.”
Smith says that in his eyes, the biggest roadblock that MACSA faced was the fact that the three top administrators, who may have known how to run a community cultural organization, were incompetent when it came to running an educational institution.
“It was a constant cycle of reinventing the wheel, and really, there was very little long-term vision,” Smith says. “If you don’t have experienced people at the top, you’re not going to get that.”
Both teachers say they valued the good work they were able to accomplish while at the Academica Calmecac, and speak proudly of the kids they were able to help get into college. Ultimately they are disappointed that the project failed.
“They were trying to make this dream happen, an integration of cultural resource center with a gang intervention center, with a charter high school that’s trying to be college prep,” Smith says. “But I think that’s how they wanted it to happen: playing volleyball and having raffles. When you have legitimate things you are supposed to be doing at a school, you are preoccupied, and they just weren’t addressing it. The school was extremely low achieving.”
In the end, Baldoni and Smith say the real people who have gotten the shaft in the MACSA fiasco are the kids they taught.
“I think [the administrators] thought, maybe if everybody could just get along, then somehow magically the school could increase in performance,” Baldoni says. “Like if we could just learn how to play with each other, then it would all be OK. It was very Twilight Zone.”