While attending a 2009 conference on foster youth, a state education official approached Keith Rivera. She casually asked Rivera if he'd seen the Santa Clara County Office of Education's year-end report on foster youth services.
A foster youth education coordinator in the county's Social Services Agency, Rivera admitted he didn't even know a report existed. The colleague hinted he might want to take a look.
"I found a lot of programs, services and numbers that were questionable," Rivera said.
Not sure what to do, he went to his administrators in the Department of Family and Children's Services, which oversees the county's foster child services—except for those delivered by the Office of Education (COE), which is a separate entity from the rest of the county's operations. A series of meetings ensued—until September 2012, when Rivera made a Public Records Act request for COE's contracts, emails, budget documents and federal grant reports.
Linda Aceves, then COE's schools chief, suggested his interest had gone from vigorous to excessive. "Her exact words were: 'You're not going to find anything,'" Rivera recalls.
It turns out Rivera did find something: COE wasted more than half a million dollars of public money that could have benefited foster youth in Santa Clara County.
In February 2008, the COE's division of Foster Youth Services inked a contract with Terben Inc. to build a state-of-the-art database to track children and young adults whose life circumstances had left them without responsible parents or legal guardians. The program was called the Foster Youth Information Network and would later go by the acronym FYSIS.
Foster youth, perhaps the county's most vulnerable residents, currently account for 1,289 children and youth under age 21. Many have been victims of absentee parents and abuse, and their rates of homelessness, drug addiction and/or incarceration are substantially higher than the average young person. In early 2008, the county was setting out on an ambitious plan to keep foster youth from falling through the cracks.
Terben promised its database would do everything from identify how many foster youth are in the county to drilling down to specifics, such as how many children receive special education courses, if they're performing at grade level, what schools they have attended, how many have been held back a grade and if they're even making it to class.
"The basics," Rivera said. "But the basics would have been a huge step."
Unfortunately, by the end of 2011, the COE had terminated its contract with Terben and spent more than $565,000 without ever establishing a fully functional database. Making matters worse, interviews based on Rivera and San Jose Inside's Public Records Act requests show that the COE suspended several foster youth programs—including tutoring—during the same time it was misspending this money.
A closer look at the actions of administrators in charge of launching the COE's foster youth database during the period of 2007-2011 reveals that some may have had conflicts of interest, while others jumped ship, were asleep at the wheel or unable to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. Perhaps most troubling, there are signs that a shell game may have been at play with state and federal grant money to cover up costly mistakes.
For the last year and a half, Rivera said, he has taken his information and shown it to a variety of people in positions of power. Administrators, county board of education trustees, staff for county supervisors and others—nearly all of them showed interest but eventually begged off. Many noted that the situation deserved answers but fell outside of their purview.
"I feel like I've exhausted all resources," Rivera said. "Anyone who does what we do acts 'in loco parentis,' which means we're in the place of the parents. We have to ensure the children are provided the services they're entitled to."
Why the COE even contracted with Terben to build a foster youth database is still an unanswered question. What's clear, however, is that the office in charge of corralling all 32 of Santa Clara County's school districts has been plagued by dysfunction. And transparency in reviewing what went so wrong has often been viewed as a task better left to successors.
Three COE superintendents have left the COE under less than ideal conditions in the last six and a half years. In October 2007, Colleen Wilcox resigned from the post after 14 years amidst hostile work environment complaints. Joe Fimiani held the role on an interim basis for eight months before ceding the job to Chuck Weis, who was well-liked by underlings but seen as inept by board of education trustees. On his way out the door, Weis left the county on the hook to make payments on a $900,000 condo he lived in during his three-plus years as superintendent. The most recent departure occurred in March, when Xavier De La Torre lasted all of 21 months before hightailing it back to El Paso, Texas, where he took control of a school district neighboring the one he left to come to California.
COE's lack of stable leadership, coupled with staff turnover, has allowed some contracts to avoid thorough vetting and project deadlines to be missed. Coordination between the COE and local school districts also fell through the cracks. Another factor in Terben's failure was COE's inability to get school districts to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to hand over foster youth records. Only three of 32 school districts appear to have signed MOUs for the project before the fall of 2010—making it nearly impossible to get the ball rolling on data collection.
"The relationships between the districts and the county are a little more challenging than to get people to walk in and agree to try it out," said Kelly Calhoun, the chief technology officer for COE, who spoke with San Jose Inside before the COE's communications department blocked interview requests up until just before this story went to press. Calhoun came to the office in late 2009 and has been working with a team of in-house programmers for the last year to roll out a new foster youth database called Foster Vision. Adding complications to completing the previous database was getting the Department of Family and Children's Services (DFCS) and the Juvenile Probation Department (JPD) on the same page.
But according to records San Jose Inside has obtained, a simple background check of Terben's references should have indicated a potential conflict of interest, while also throwing the company's track record into question. The COE, with the help of its Foster Youth Services (FYS) consultant Tracy Fried, put its database idea out for bid in late 2007. Fried had previously served as the FYS coordinator for San Diego County's Office of Education from 2000-2005.
In Terben's bid, the company cited FYS databases it had created for San Diego and Riverside's respective county education offices. What the bid failed to mention was that Terben's database in San Diego was deactivated within just several months of going live in 2005—a full two and a half years before Santa Clara County would even sign a contract with the company—and Riverside's contract was only a few months old.
Michelle Lustig, who took over Fried's role in San Diego in the summer of 2005, told San Jose Inside that Terben's work fell short almost as soon as she came on to the job.
"I came into my position and discovered it was insufficient," Lustig said. "One of the things that I discovered very early on was it didn't have the firewall protection required. I saw the vulnerability of the data. It was web-based, and could be accessed by anyone, anywhere."
San Diego's office began work to design its own database in November 2005, Lustig said. But in 2007, a full two years later, it seems no one in the COE ever bothered to contact her for a progress report. That could be because Fried was aggressively pushing for a reunion with Terben and its CEO Chris Benson, who she described in a phone conversation with San Jose Inside as a "database guru."
"I couldn't have been more of a reference," Fried said. "I was the reference. I was the lead for Santa Clara County."
In just eight months of consulting work for COE in 2007, Fried received $122,000. She remains proud of that work, even if it resulted in a terrible waste of public money. Sonja House, who declined multiple requests for an interview, succeeded Fried as FYS coordinator in December of that year. Based on internal reports and emails, House's oversight has been highly questionable. Terben's communications presented early red flags, such as a March 2008 email in which CEO Chris Benson suggested to House that any discussion of costs could kill the project.
"I would use the utmost discretion when discussing any level of detail on the project, particularly financing," Benson wrote. "We can only talk 'ballpark' and estimates as there has been very little if any sort of project discovery done in your county. Talk of on-going costs is premature and distracting from the most immediate needs. É More detail brings more questions and risks putting this project into analysis paralysis."
Two years after that, it was apparent Terben would not meet its rollout goals by 2011. Mark Ashley, an employee in the COE's Regional Technology Center, audited Terben's progress in a damning March 24, 2010, report. In his findings, Ashley questioned how the company's bid was accepted in the first place.
"Of the research that was done at the time Terben had a one-page website and no product information on its website just a name and an email address [sic]," he wrote. "The organization was not promoting or selling a product at the time."
Fried told San Jose Inside that she was so confident in her past experience with Terben, despite knowing the company's database was no longer live in San Diego, that in making her reference she never bothered to look at the company's website.
"I don't even know (if it had one page)," she said. "I never looked at Chris' website." Benson told San Jose Inside that his website had more than one page.
Ashley later concluded in his report: "Terben and the COE and its partners have advocated an expansion for a system that is as yet incomplete. Stuck at phase 3 and a year late already the scope is being worked out to spend another $400k."
Lustig told San Jose Inside that no one ever contacted her for a reference on the company's work.
"For Terben to have [used us as a reference] in 2008—we were not using their product and we had not used their product," she said. "We had been very clear with them in writing that we were not using their information. And that was public information. They were public contracts.
"This whole thing makes my stomach hurt. I'm sorry. We're supposed to help kids."
Leon Beauchman, a 14-year trustee and current president of the county board of education, told San Jose Inside, "Certainly the fact that [Terben's] system wasn't working raises some concern."
Fried argued that it was COE administrators who "dropped the ball," and she also challenged Lustig's version of events, claiming that San Diego's COE dismantled a perfectly workable database.
"It worked out phenomenally," Fried said. "I honestly get disgusted and outraged at the shit that went down (in San Diego). They recruited me from the [Los Angeles] Board of Education and my work is my heart and soul. Unfortunately, imagine if you left and all the great work you were doing; and they're self-serving. It was horrible. You have no idea how political it got."
Fried said that San Diego administrators wanted her to include more security protection to the database—a concern that was also raised here in Santa Clara County—but she refused. "My agency had wanted me to change it, so they felt more comfortable with the system," she said. "But I'm not going to spend $20,000 for no reason."
Compared to the extra costs Santa Clara County was billed by Terben, in what appears to be a failure to terminate its contract in a timely manner, $20,000 would have been getting off light.
It's nearly impossible to reach Chris Benson. Terben's website has disappeared, and an outdated phone system transfers to extensions that usually end in a busy signal. I'd almost given up. But on a Tuesday morning he called, and his voice rose when hearing accusations from COE officials that his product didn't deliver.
"This was one of the saddest chapters in my life," he said, "to see my work run over by bureaucracy."
Benson said that in late 2010, right when the system should have been flourishing with incoming data, it went off the rails. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) had just awarded the COE a three-year, $400,000 grant in October 2010 to expand its database to help at-risk youth.
"Right when we got that grant things started falling apart financially for [COE]," Benson said. "The budget [cuts] came in from the state. There was no foreseeable future. There was basically a panic. And then they started letting people go.
"I thought everything was hunky-dory. It was quite a shock."
While the impact of the recession and state budget cuts would have a profound impact on every local government agency, it appears that the COE's FYS division overlooked an important clause in its contract with Terben. Benson told San Jose Inside that COE let the database contract lapse by about six months, before attempting to terminate the agreement in June 2011. The oversight left COE on the hook for another six-figure payment, bringing the total cost to $565,702.
"By [the end of 2010] we were already in discussions on how the next phase of the project was going and the contract would be automatically renewed," Benson said. "I was warning Sonja, 'Look, we're coming to the end of the year. We're coming to another term. It's time to make the decision now.' It was the third quarter of 2010."
While COE legal counsel debated over whether it had ownership of the Terben database—it didn't, as the contract was written exceedingly in favor of Terben—the deadline to cut its losses apparently lapsed.
What adds a layer of concern to not only the mismanagement of the contract is how House and the COE's FYS division reported its progress to federal authorities. At the end of December 2010, a status report from COE noted that 12 districts participated in a database orientation, four districts had signed MOUs and 1,806 youth were served. But just six months later, in June 2011, a status report given to OJJDP noted that MOUs had been signed with four school districts, and yet the number of students served had dropped to 154.
"I don't know how they could say any youth were served through the database, because they didn't allow access to it," Benson said. "Orientations are a way for selling (the product) to get them in. We weren't serving anybody yet."
Sparky Harlan, CEO of Bill Wilson Center, a local shelter for homeless and runaway youth, has assisted at-risk children and young adults in Santa Clara County for more than 30 years. When asked how important educational opportunities are for foster youth, in particular, she points to studies that have found that nearly one-third of transition age homeless (16 to 24) were in foster care at some point during their lives.
"Foster care kids often have a rough life, especially kids that have been bounced from home to home," Harlan said. "By the time foster care kids get to high school they've usually been in five to 10 homes. Their day-to-day life is trying to get up and go to school and see if they'll pass their classes, and maybe see some of their family at some point.
"It's a tough existence. It's having multiple schools and multiple homes. It's an unstable life to be going through. They need all the support and care they can get from trusting and caring adults."
But coordination between local agencies designed to track educational progress of foster youth has been at a stalemate for the last several years.
During the 2010-11 budget cycle, which runs from July 1 of the former year to June 30 of the latter, COE's FYS division backed out of several critical programs: tutoring, Emerging Scholars, Middle School Education Court and De Anza Summer Bridge. While some of these programs are discretionary, the reason for backing out of them has still not been explained by COE staff. And the lack of follow-up by the county safety net speaks to the dysfunction of county bureaucracy.
In fact, agencies that should be collaborating have been so hands-off that DFCS stopped signing off on annual year-end reports from House, the FYS coordinator, starting in 2010. These reports are sent to the state Department of Education and designed to document the programs that the COE carries out for foster youth thanks to grant money.
A source at the state level, who was not authorized to discuss the matter but agreed to talk with San Jose Inside on the condition of anonymity, said that county agencies often fail to use their grant money, but COE has been particularly incompetent in utilizing funds.
DFCS officials maintained in interviews and emails with San Jose Inside that the department is under no obligation to sign the COE FYS reports. "DFCS signature is as a courtesy, since DFCS is a collaborative partner and subject matter advisor in the process," wrote Stanley Lee, a social services program manager, in an email to San Jose Inside. That reluctance appears to have allowed questions about oversight and transparency to avoid detection for more than three years.
Bruce Wagstaff, who was hired as the director of Social Services in July 2012, took a meeting last summer with former county school Superintendent De La Torre, as well as DFCS and COE staff, to discuss concerns brought to him by subordinates about how data and service levels were being reported. As has been a hallmark in such discussions, they went nowhere.
"I sent [De La Torre] a letter based on those discussions," Wagstaff told San Jose Inside. "Of course, Xavier left, and our follow-up contacts with them has not been as successful."
Like clockwork, when a COE staffer or administrator leaves for another job or retires, it seems the interest in fleshing out answers exits as well.
Lori Medina, who heads up DFCS, said she has refused to sign House's year-end FYS report because it has often come in with little time to review before deadline and the numbers are tabulated in an inconsistent manner.
"We couldn't discern to our level of satisfaction that we were talking about the same numbers, that it was easily translatable," Medina said. "And because our signature wasn't a requirement, we didn't feel comfortable signing off.
"I'm not at a point to say they're inaccurate," she added. "I'm at a point where I don't fully understand how their reporting works."
If Social Services Agency—which views itself as the county safety net—can't make sense of the report after years of back and forth, one has to wonder if an internal audit of foster youth services could be beneficial.
"We always learn things when we have internal audits, so, yes, that could be a valuable process," Medina said.
A year after the COE mysteriously cut some foster youth services, such as tutoring, another odd bit of math occurred. Internal budget documents for the COE's FYS division, for the budget year 2011-12, show that $58,181 was allotted to cover the cost of tutoring services for foster youth. But in the final expenditure narrative for that year, the total going to fund this service changed to $117,307.34. The expenditure description also changed to now include the line item detail of "database development," just months after Terben's contract was settled.
COE officials have denied that any money designated for foster youth tutoring would have been channeled over to paying off debt from the failed database.
Ken Blackstone, the COE's communications director, could not say why those budget numbers changed so radically, but he noted in an email "the COE recognizes the need to improve our contract process and has taken steps toward that end and the overall stewardship of taxpayer dollars."
It appears County Executive Jeff Smith, who oversees all Santa Clara County operations and reports to the Board of Supervisors, will be one of many taking a closer look.
"It concerns me any time a plan to help out foster kids and to help us provide services to foster kids doesn't work out," Smith said. "In this situation, it was a grant that went to the county Office of Education, and the effect of it essentially is our clients don't get the benefit of coordinated services. So, that's very troublesome. At this point we're pushing real hard to get another system in place that will do the job and provide the technical services."
The level of bureaucracy in monitoring county foster youth shows just how dire a need there is for a working database. And while there will be no reclamation project with Terben, the county is in the initial steps of launching a new foster youth tracking system. The in-house database, Foster Vision, has been built entirely under the watch of Dr. Kelly Calhoun, the COE's chief technology officer.
"The good news is we have the product now, the bad news it was a mess of a project leading up to that point," she said.
COE has added new layers of security to the database, Calhoun said, and two school districts in Campbell and Morgan Hill have tentatively agreed to take part in the pilot program. Oak Grove and Franklin McKinley school districts have also given verbal commitments. Similar to the system under Terben, much will depend on how well the county can convince districts to sign on; that the past failures are just that.
After declining all of San Jose Inside's interview requests for this story, COE officials scrambled together a conference call after deadline Tuesday afternoon. Blackstone, who had previously declined to make anyone from COE available for interviews, was joined by Calhoun and newly anointed interim superintendent Mary Ann Dewan.
The trio said that some information about the Terben fiasco might never be known, due to a lack of institutional knowledge. But Dewan also noted that some safeguards have been put in place to prevent exorbitant contracts from going undetected.
"There wasn't as much clarity about which contracts need to go to the Board [of Education] for approval," Dewan said. "I've only been here since October, but we have been making concerted efforts to train staff that any contracts over $100,000 would need to go to the Board for approval."
There appears to be some willingness to see why things fell apart and conduct an internal audit.
"We would certainly take that under consideration," Dewan said.