Board of Ed Allows Schools Chief to Avoid Answers on Shady Deal

County schools chief Jon Gundry would prefer we not talk about the quarter-million dollar contract he set up with a mystery company, which, for all intents and purposes, exists to funnel taxpayer money.

Gundry would also prefer we not discuss his decision to pay nearly six figures to a consultant who abruptly quit the moment his contract received public scrutiny.

And, of course, Gundry would prefer we shut up about the fact that he can’t provide a single document proving what work was done—beyond invoices that were billed to the county at a rate of $225 an hour, including travel time.

Thankfully, for Gundry, most of the county's Board of Education trustees are all too happy to overlook his secretive spending, whether it be due to general disinterest or a lack of love for the messenger (hi).

Last November, the Board changed its policy on reviewing contracts of $10,000 and greater. Instead of being vetted by the school business services department, the threshold for such a review was upped to $99,000, according to comments made last week by general counsel Maribel Medina. It was a rather trusting decision considering the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) had just brought on its seventh superintendent—including interim placeholders—in the last eight years.

That same month, Gundry signed a contract with School Business Service Consultants, a company financial consultant Mark Skvarna suggested for paperwork purposes. The retired superintendent from Southern California would do payroll and financial audits for SCCOE, and payments would be made to School Business Service Consultants. But no information about the company can be found on the Internet, and that secrecy carried over to the contract.

San Jose Inside reported last week that Gundry and the SCCOE were unable to provide any documents from Skvarna noting progress or deliverables for $92,925 in payments.

Also unusual, Skvarna's invoices noted that he would prefer to pick up payments in person from Gundry's office rather than have accounting mail checks to School Business Service Consultants' address.

In a meeting held Wednesday—if you've got 30 minutes to kill click on item 10.E—Gundry suggested that a lack of documentation for Skvarna's work was done on purpose, because it was “sensitive” in nature.

“There’s some aspects of this I’m hesitant to talk about publicly,” Gundry said. “There are reasons on why I’m not going to give a completely clear answer in public.”

This makes no sense, for several reasons.

Gundry has not given the Board any reports regarding Skvarna’s work in closed session, which would prevent any conversations from going public. An assortment of exemptions to the Public Records Act also exist, for the sole reason of shielding confidential information.

What could be so important it can't ever be written on paper? Even buried treasure gets an "X" to mark the spot.

Only two members of the SCCOE’s seven-person Board of Education took issue Wednesday with Gundry’s evasiveness: trustee Joe Di Salvo, who pulled Gundry's contract request for an additional $150,000 from the May 20 agenda, and newly appointed board member Rosemary Kamei.

“I need an explanation from you Superintendent Gundry, how this all worked,” Di Salvo said, noting that Skvarna billed the county for an "excessive" $20,000 in travel over the course of just six months.

At that exact moment, Board president Darcie Green—who hopes to parlay her current seat into a spot in the State Assembly—got up from the dais and walked out of the room. Granted it was a long meeting, but the timing of such a departure was telling. Green returned from behind a curtain a minute or two later with something to drink, seemingly unconcerned that she and the Board had no idea what its direct report, the superintendent, had been up to.

“I think what we need to look at is not just this individual contract, but the processes overall,” Green said later in the meeting, taking the long view that it’s better to make sure mistakes don’t happen again—even if no one other than Di Salvo was willing to admit mistakes were made in this instance.

Green went on to suggest that the contract with School Business Service Consultants was legal and does not skirt “the spirit of the law.”

This might be true, in the sense that the SCCOE signed a contract with a consulting company and Gundry had the authority to do so without Board approval. But there is no denying that Gundry and staff enabled Skvarna to skirt CalPERS retirement rules by having School Business Service Consultants listed on the contract, rather than himself.

Skvarna retired as superintendent of Baldwin Park Unified School District in October 2014. CalPERS rules require him to apply for a waiver if he attempts to work for a California public agency within six months—he began consulting work for the SCCOE less than a month after retiring.

According to trustee Di Salvo, School Business Service Consultants' sole proprietor, Frank Butler, has a reputation for acting as an intermediary to prevent retirees from being penalized by laws on double dipping.

“I don’t think it’s a good use of public dollars,” Di Salvo said. “Somebody from another district told me it’s 10 percent [Butler] makes to help people avoid the PERS issue. So, if he makes 10 percent and he’s employing 50 or 100 people, there’s a lot of money going into Mr. Butler’s pocket. Those are public dollars, so that somewhat concerns me.”

Trustees Grace Mah and Anna Song couldn’t have been less disturbed by the arrangement, except for the fact that Skvarna disappeared the moment his contract became public.

“If he has decided not to work for us for whatever reason, that’s a shame on the system, for us,” Mah said. “As far as the 10 percent that goes to Mr. Butler, as far as I understand, that’s quite a deal. I think it’s definitely worth the pubic dollars.”

Song took a different tack, admitting on one hand that she hasn’t been paying attention to the issues before taking a shot at San Jose Inside’s reporting of the shady dealings.

Let's break down her thoughts, quote by quote:

Trustee Song: “I feel like the most checked-out board member of all, because I have personal reasons and work and whatnot going on.”

Translation: Has anyone else been watching Game of Thrones? This season has been crazy.

“Now there's public scrutiny, for whatever the reasons. I don’t know what’s really motivating—I’m going to refuse to call it media. But it’s a public scrutiny. And, yes, we ought to be and should be and always have been responsible, but I think it’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to finish the job that we started. It’s unfortunate that I think he should have stuck around. Just because an item was pulled (from an agenda) doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to be automatically approved."

It's a shame Skvarna was so skittish. He had nothing to worry about. The money was always right here waiting.

“This is a practice allowed. Nothing illegal was done, as the public may not understand, because there are some things that we do the public do not immediately understand unless they really go through the system and get the system. After 16 years I still don’t get some of the system."

This isn't against the rules. You don't even know the rules. Wait, what are the rules?

“It’s our loss. In the end, it’s our loss. So, it’s unfortunate. I resent sensationalism.”

I'm still upset that San Jose Inside reported that I was arrested last year for suspected spousal abuse.

Moving on.

Despite the best efforts of Di Salvo, and mentions of concern from Kamei, the Board repeatedly focused the discussion on the legality of the contract, and whether the SCCOE was protected from any liability. This apprehension most likely carries over from the very real threat of lawsuits to come out of the Walden West child abuse scandal.

But in bubbly fashion, Green managed to end the discussion on a lighter note.

“For me, the takeaway from this is let’s talk about things,” she said, pausing to laugh, “and maybe find out what’s really happening.”

Yes, that would be a fantastic place to start.

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

28 Comments

  1. Di Salvo seeks the truth and admits mistakes. Green is a publicity hound with political aspirations beyond her abilities. How she got elected to begin with is simply amazing.

    • BS Rose Garden.

      A publicity hound politician would just have their subordinates coordinate events and just show up for the photo ops. I’ve been around Green at a lot of events, she’s there all day long working as hard as any of her reports.

      I’ve never seen DiSalvo at any events.

    • Green announced through DAWN (Democratic Activists for Women Now) in April 2015 that she is running for state assembly, just a couple of months after having been elected to the County Board of Ed last Nov. 2014 (she was appointed prior to that time.) Interesting that having been elected in Nov 2010 for one school board, Alum Rock, she jumped ship to get appointed to the County Board, and then having been finally elected to the County Board in 2014, she wants to jump ship again.

      One would think that when someone runs to fill a 4 year seat, that the individual would fulfill one 4 year commitment prior to trying to move to a higher office.

      • Do you feel the same way about Don Rocha? Served 1.5 years on the Cambrian Board before running for council.

        I got a feeling we’re going to see a replay of this when D8 comes up for grabs. Won’t mention names but.. Yah, I’m sure you can fit the puzzle together.

        • I think that anyone who runs for a 4 year office without disclosing to voters that he/she plans to jump ship for a higher office if possible prior to fulfilling his/her first 4 year term is not being honest with voters. Once one term is completed, if someone gets re-elected and then seeks another office I have no problem with that. Voters are looking for someone to represent them – not to help a politician use a local office as a short term stepping stone.

          I wasn’t aware of the D8 issue. Thank you for that information.

          As far as I know, others in our county who started out on local school boards (Mike Honda, Joe Simitian, Paul Fong, for example) fulfilled their commitment on those boards for at least one term prior to running for a higher office. I have no problem with someone gaining experience for one or more terms in a local office prior to running for higher office. I think that experience on a local level is valuable. But once elected, individuals should actually spend time in that local office and not seek to leave as soon as possible for more powerful pastures.

  2. Thank You Josh for keeping tax payers informed. This is beyond disgusting. County Superintendent Gundry has been getting away with this crime because Board President Green, Trustee Mah and Trustee Song are allowing it. They too need to be investigated.

  3. Thank you Josh for keeping tax payers informed. This is beyond disgusting. County Superintendent Gundry has been getting away with this crime because Board President Green, Trustee Mah and Trustee Song for allowing it. They too need to be investigated.

    • If only Josh were so diligent about keeping taxpayers informed about the goings on at San Jose’s City Hall… as adept as he is about deciphering Trustee Song’s politician speak he willfully turns deaf ear to SJ’s pols doublespeak and marvels at their craftiness in changing and even creating rules to allow behavior that common sense says is shady…

      “It is not illegal therefore no one can say it is ‘wrong’…” is the hallmark of San Jose’s Political Machine. Why doesn’t JK apply the same standard to County Officials?

      • “Josh is thorough and accurate. Simply put, we need more reporters like Josh. He’s timely, factual, precise, and thorough. Meyer Weed, send him an email. The real issue: This scandal makes the County Board complicit in the wrongdoing of County Superintendent Gundry. They need to act, fast. If they want to save the COE’s reputation and their professional careers, they’ll fire Gundry sooner rather than later. They have cause. It’s remarkable the level of disgust, incompetence, corruption, and criminal activity they’re willing to tolerate.”

        • JK has shown potential when he isn’t juvenile, petty, semi-objective. He is miles short of “thorough” on a macro level when he can be a cheerleader for City level pols who lie cheat and steal in the same manner and may be worse than the County counterparts he slices and dices.

          Perhaps it’s just a survival thing – not wanting to stir the pot with the City Hall that oversees the territory SJI physically calls it’s business home…. look at the track record…Milpitas…State office holders (former San Jose office holders) , county office holders (some of which were City office holders)….maybe that’s JK’S thing? Sitting on knowledge of these crooks SJ wrong doings until they are termed out or moved out…if that is the case When can we expect the expose on Chuck Reed? (Oh wait, might be a while JK is all for sticking it to the police by any means necessary -pension reform- so maybe after Reed’s statewide ballot initiative? See the pattern? Jk/SJI aren’t journalists they are propagandists…and only loyal until they don’t have to be any more.

          • See the pattern? Jk/SJI aren’t journalists they are propagandists…and only loyal until they don’t have to be any more.

            You could look at it like that. I see it a little differently, they’re doing what they have to survive. They can’t burn all their bridges, because if said bridges didn’t exist, they wouldn’t have the arcane knowledge that they gain sometimes.

            It’s like a cop doing a line of coke to not alert dope dealers that he/she is an undercover narc. Moral dilemmas are separate from survival dilemmas to get the evidence. SJI / Josh’s situation is really no different.

          • I think we see it almost the same he is doing what he does to survive. It is a moral dilema though it’s a professional ethics dilema.fair balanced objective…. not situational.

            By the way the snorting a line stuff… maybe it happened somewhere sometime and it makes great filler for Hollywood movies but it would not be approved or condoned in 99.99999999999…% of situations…. u/c snitches working off cases aren’t even authorized to do that …. so back to reality JK picks and choses…

            and for Diego who wants me to email JK? Waste of time. (A) my email is on file with this site so he can email me (B) JK gets spoon fed easily verifiable facts form many posters from many.points of view related to goings on at City Hall right here in San Jose that he ignores… or lets kindly say he sits on and (C) I know he reads comments here because sometimes he responds and other times he or some other SJI deletes posts that “don’t fit in” so email would be redundant.

          • Why don’t you start your own blog, Meyer Weed, to give the opposing perspective. Can’t blame lack of time.

          • Both Cortese’ and Weeds have extended their 15 minutes of fame on this site. Find a hobby or walk the streets mumblying jibberish to uninterested bypassers. Spreading your misinformation and personal BS as fact has become rather boring and offers no useful insight.

          • Paco:Both Cortese’ and Weeds have extended their 15 minutes of fame on this site. Find a hobby or walk the streets mumblying jibberish to uninterested bypassers. Spreading your misinformation and personal BS as fact has become rather boring and offers no useful insight.

            Sorry, don’t think that tactic will work here anymore. Some people in political circles tried to “brigade” me off this site, by feigning to be multiple people (puppet accounts) I suspected it, I talked to Josh about it, and he confirmed it. Sadly it didn’t make it as a news article.

            Part of my discussion included Dan as well, and I brought up that several elected officials asked me personally to stop posting here, or do it under a pen name. Why? I don’t have a right to use my name because I happen to share one with an elected official? What kind of BS is that? Everyone agreed that constructive civil dialog is fine on this site, but when people like you start interjecting that you’re not interesting in conversations from specific users, and using puppet accounts to make that point, that just proves that you are the one operating under an agenda.

            Weed and I don’t really have agendas. We either see things as fair, or not fair. We don’t always see eye to eye either, but we respect one another for taking the time to civilly craft responses to each other.

            Maybe if you personally don’t want to see what we write, you should petition SJI to allow access to an “Ignore user” feature. Their software supports it.

  4. This is despicable.

    From Josh’s well written article:

    “At that exact moment, Board President Darcie Green – who hopes to parlay her current seat into a spot in the State Assembly – got up from the dais and walked out of the room.”

    What was President Green thinking?

    Here’s our translation:
    This discussion is like you know, way over my head. Why is Joe worried about spending $20,000 in taxpayer dollars for a shady consultant to travel for two months? Wait. Did we pay Butler and Skvarna $92,000 to travel for two months? How’s my hair? Do I look pretty? Let me check FB. Oh… This discussion is taking too long. Let me go get coffee and eat a cookie and hopefully it’ll be over by the time I return.

    Fellow taxpayers, that’s Board President Green in action. Perhaps that’s why Gundry is still the County Superintendent.

  5. l can’t wait for the investigative reporter to flush out all the corrupt dealings of this dishonest,
    immoral, devious and incompetent dirt bag of a Superintendent. County Superintendent Gundry should resign to save himself from embarrassment. Oh wait, too late!

  6. JSL “Why don’t you start your own blog…?” I did , and a Facebook and a twitter…. bottom line, I think my info reaches a broader target here. As far as time? Yep I gave plenty and still manage to hold down a full time job, and spend quality time with my growing family . Hey my quarterly estimate is due soon , gotta go.

  7. Gundry and Green need to be removed from office. This is ridiculous and shameful.

  8. I’m surprised no one has mentioned filing a Freedom of Information request. Doesn’t that apply to taxpeyer funds?

    • This appears to be the worst example of a blatant misuse if public funds. I ‘m speechless.

  9. Gundry and Skavarna engaged in several unethical and illegal arrangements, as articulated by Josh. Here’s a recap:

    1. PERS requires 180 day wait period after one retires from PERS, before one can work, unless one gets a waiver. Gundry/Skavarna violated this requirement. Skavarna retired in October 2014 and started collecting checks from the SCCOE 2 months later. No waiver, no nothing.

    The irony? The County Office of Education is charged with approving those waivers for us at the district level.

    2. Gundry signed off on a contract with a company that doesn’t even exist!

    His General Counsel even warned him.

    3. Gundry signed off on invoices approving payment to a company that doesn’t exist, totaling over $90K in taxpayer dollars. A big chunk for travel.

    WHAT SERVICES DID SKAVARNA PROVIDE TO GUNDRY FOR $90 K?

    4. Gundry does not have anything to show for the $90K of taxpayer dollars he released –except for lip service, as he reported at the June 3rd board meeting.

    5. Gundry has been paying Frank Butler who has been part of scams and had his license revoked from the state.

    Is this how our County Superintendent manages our taxpayer dollars?
    When will the board take action to start restoring credibility? You 7 know what you need to do.

  10. Gundry and Skavarna engaged in several unethical and illegal arrangements, as articulated by Josh. Here’s a recap:

    1. PERS requires 180 day wait period after one retires from PERS, before one can work, unless one gets a waiver. Gundry/Skavarna violated this requirement. Skavarna retired in October 2014 and started collecting checks from the SCCOE 2 months later. No waiver, no nothing.

    The irony? The County Office of Education is charged wih approving those waivers for us at the district level.

    2. Gundry signed off on a contract with a company that doesn’t even exist!

    His General Counsel even warned him.

    3. Gundry signed off on invoices approving payment to a company that doesn’t exist, totaling over $90K in taxpayer dollars. A big chunk for travel.

    WHAT SERVICES DID SKAVARNA PROVIDE TO GUNDRY FOR $90K.

    4. Gundry does not have anything to show for the $90K of taxpayer dollars he released –except for lip service, as he reported at the June 3rd board meeting.

    5. Gundry has been paying Frank Butler who has been part of scams and had his license revoked from the State.

    Is this how our County Superintendent manages our taxpayer dollars?

    When will the board take action to start restoring credibility? You 7 know what you need to do.

  11. > Maybe if you personally don’t want to see what we write, you should petition SJI to allow access to an “Ignore user” feature. Their software supports it.

    Another possible solution is the “neuralyzer” as featured in the “Men In Black” movies.

    Just set it back to first grade and it will erase your memory of how to read.

    Problem solved.

    And those people annoyed by other people’s opinions will become much happier campers.

  12. In reference to the recent articles regarding Jon Gundry clandestine and unethical operations, it appears that he’s just continuing the practices of the Interim Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan.

    Exactly ONE YEAR AGO, PRIOR to Gundry’s time, San Jose Inside uncovered a similar situation of lies and corruption. However, this time the unethical activity was lead by Interim Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan.

    Check it out.

    http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2014/06/19/emails-show-office-of-education-committed-to-obfuscation/

    “Well, I think in response to requests and things of that nature and public records and/or media requests, we have been setting our processes here at the county office and looking to be compliant and efficient and take a global schematic approach across our department. Our efforts are more cohesive. We want to be responsive. That’s certainly our intention to be responsive. But we also want to make sure we’re compliant and efficient.”—Mary Ann Dewan.

    “Dewan’s robotic response says nearly as much about her “intention to be responsive” as the emails her office turned over—which included documents she and Blackstone withheld from previous requests for information.” — SJI

    “One email shows that Dewan, who got a $7,500 monthly raise on her $169,000 annual salary after receiving the interim superintendent tag, coached board member Beauchman for an interview with San Jose Inside while also providing invoices that were never turned over. In an April 11 phone call, Dewan told San Jose Inside that she would have cooperated more with the database story had she known we were requesting comment sooner. But emails show Blackstone—who refused to even meet with San Jose Inside before its story ran April 9—was blind carbon copying (Bcc-ing) her on emails as far back as late March.” — SJI

    My question to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, why do you allow this conduct? Why do you continue to put these types in leadership roles representing you? For goodness sake, clean it up.