County Education Officials Knew They Were Hiding Public Records

New internal emails from the Santa Clara County Office of Education show that the chief of schools and his communications director followed the same playbook when it came to hiding contracts.

After repeatedly flouting the Public Records Act—either by ignoring San Jose Inside’s information requests or by claiming no responsive records existed—the public agency that oversees 31 Silicon Valley school districts now says it “inadvertently” failed to provide previously undisclosed contracts as required by law.

“It was an oversight in not supplying you with this information in a timely manner,” the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) wrote in a June 29 response. “There was never any intention by any staff member to withhold information.”

The record shows otherwise.

Micaela Ochoa, who appears to have been forced out of her role last week as chief business officer, sent several emails between June 16 to 18 informing Superintendent Jon Gundry and his spokesman, Ken Blackstone, that the agency was being unresponsive to San Jose Inside’s requests for public records. Public agencies are required to “promptly” respond to request for records within 10 days, regardless of whether they come from media or the general public, and to explain why additional time is needed if the records cannot be provided.

This never happened after San Jose Inside made two requests for consulting contracts on June 3 and 4, in addition to numerous follow-up calls and emails requesting clarification.

“It appears that the information you provided to Josh yesterday evening is inconsistent with the facts,” Ochoa wrote on June 16 to Gundry, Blackstone, several staffers and Maribel Medina, an attorney who also no longer works for the SCCOE. “The attached response you sent to Josh today at around 2 PM is also inconsistent with the facts. I am very concerned that SCCOE's response to the PRA Request is not accurate. I'm not sure from where you are getting the information you are providing to Josh, but it's not accurate.”

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Thirteen days would pass before the SCCOE would cough up copies of the contracts.

Several of these agreements again prove that Gundry has doled out $100k deals but set amounts just below the six-figure threshold, which would require approval from the elected Board of Education and scrutiny from SCCOE accountants.

As previously reported, Sue Daniels received a consulting contract for $99,999. SOA Project had its contract increased by the superintendent to $99,950. The law firm McArthur & Levin, LLP received a contract in February for $90,000. Multiple other law firms were given contracts for tens of thousands of dollars.

Several of these contracts related to payroll mishaps from 2013, which resulted in the IRS fining the SCCOE $200,000 last year. Gundry has insisted in public that he simply wants to find out what happened and fix the system, but in a rare email he admitted he has always planned to contract out unionized positions and eliminate jobs.

On Oct. 20, 2014, Medina sent an email with the subject line “RE: serious concern.” She wrote: “It sounds like there are two primary concerns: (1) contracting out bargaining unit work, and (2) automating payroll to replace employees. Neither of which is accurate.”

Gundry replied: “We are definitely planning to automate payroll. It would be irresponsible not to do so. The fact is that when we automate, we will need fewer employees, so concern #2 is largely true. Are they really suggesting that we maintain antiquated, manual practices just to save positions? I would make a similar argument for concern #1, but we will discuss it at cabinet on Monday.”

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Gundry’s plans to clean house are now coming to fruition with the departure of Medina and Ochoa, the latter of whom is being replaced by Mark Skvarna, a consultant Gundry secretly hired last November and paid $92,250. In six months of work, Skvarna never submitted a single written report and invoiced the county for nearly $20,000 in travel expenses.

Gundry's hiring of consultants has created a situation where double dipping could occur. In addition to now bringing aboard Skvarna, who retired from a superintendent position in Southern California just last fall, Gundry also brought back retired SCCOE employees to assist in handling payroll matters.

In a phone call Monday, Blackstone repeatedly used a boiler plater quote—a speciality of his—that the SCCOE is committed to transparency and never intended to conceal contracts.

“I want to be clear that we respect and follow the law,” he said several times.

Blackstone then called past San Jose Inside articles on SCCOE business “libelous.”

Before Ken Blackstone went on vacation last month the county Office of Education spokesman ignored internal pleas to comply with the Public Records Act. (Photo via Facebook)

Before Ken Blackstone went on vacation last month the county education spokesman ignored internal pleas to comply with the Public Records Act. (Photo via Facebook)

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to josh@metronews.com or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

32 Comments

  1. This guy is arrogant and misguided. When is a Mercury News and affiliates going to look into this very serious situation? What is the stance from the school board. Ironic that two Latinas were the first to go. Seems to me two professionals were trying to do the “right” thing with the PRA, and Gundry wasn’t . Why is he still responsible for 31 districts? Why is he stealing from children and tax payers? Can’t the school board see what is happening on their watch? Public trust is at an all time low for all of these clowns!! So sad that is all happening on the backs of children.

  2. So, while the SCCBOE is flouting the CA PRA, its spokesflack is taking a selfie with a llama in the Andes. Your tax dollars at rest. California—the next Greece?

    • Seems like Gundry and Blackstone have another common denominator – Selfie.

  3. How does the Sccoe “oversee” 31 separate school districts? Don’t those 31 over see them selves and do they rwally report to the Sccoe?

    Who oversees the Sccoe? The State superintendent of education? The Board of Supervisors?

    Seems like a whole lot of money could be saved by simply eliminating this ridiculously redundant layer of bureaucracy.

  4. The board members were hired Gundry and Blackstone need to accept that they made another mistake and fire them!

  5. Gundry and Blackstone are acting like the office of education is their personal playground, making a joke out of their duties, instead of acting as professionals with obligations to the agency and the public. It’s a sorry state of affairs. There are so many public servants properly carrying out their duties every day. People like these two give public servants a bad name.

  6. This is the worst SCCOE scandal ever. The SCCBOE went after Xavier De La Torre for what? Implementing measures to prevent this corruption from happening. But the SCCBOE supports Jon Gundry, Blackstone, Dewan, Skvarna with these corrupt scandalous acts. Is it a coincidence or Is it intentional?

  7. What is the penalty or consequence of violating the public request law multiple times? The lawmaking agency responsible for enforcing this law must take action now. These public officials deliberately withheld vital information from the reporter.

  8. Stop the pickpocketing of taxpayers’ pockets. Fire these bumbling bozos now. The self-feathering of their own nests and coverups need to be stopped.

  9. reporter Josh, thank you for exposing these corrupt and deceitful public officials and their conspiracy. one wonders what other criminal acts they are coving up.

  10. Sounds like Jon, Mary Anne and Skvarna are on a witch hunt to find errors so they could outsource payroll. No wonder there are so many consultants auditing the payroll records. No wonder Jon brought in ADP Payroll Services to do a free analysis of payroll. It all adds up now.

    • We have zero respect for this egotistic jerk while he was in Pasadena. Watch this YouTube video and you’ll know why.

      He makes backdoor deals and just simply cannot be trusted. Some board members support him because he kisses up to them and makes questionable side deals with them.

      http://gopublicproject.org/2012/08/jon-gundry/

  11. Thanks to the former District Business employees, N.J, C.M. and current payroll C.F. dishonest practices such as overpaying employees, shredding time sheets and not properly deducting vacation and sick leave, these consultants have been hired to find all of the errors that “mysteriously” have no audit or backup to support the outrageous amount of errors during 2013. But remember people, there are ways to find ALL entries, which computers they came from and so forth.

  12. The county office of education is in complete disarray. This was the worst week in my 20 years working here.

  13. Why would the County Board allowing Gundry to bring back Mark Skvarna? This consultant (and Gundry’s friend) already violated the public’s trust. He robbed the taxpayers by invoicing outrageous amounts for his commute to work and travel expenses. How could he charge SCCOE nearly $20,000 for his commute/travel expenses in only 6 months? And he was only working 3 days a week according to the invoices in the recent SJ Inside article below. We cannot tolerate this misuse of public funds.

    http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2015/06/03/almost-no-paper-trail-exists-for-250k-county-schools-contract/

    • Obviously. Gundry likely made an “Under-the-Table” deal with some of the board members. He’s determine to find a way to get his friend, Skvarna, paid since the bogus company scam fell through.

    • What a waste. The $20,000 should go to students. Skvarna should not be allowed to step foot in Santa Clara County Office of Education.

  14. I tip my hat off to Josh Koehn for unraveling the most of the truth. Sadly the whole truth has never been told by the San Jose Mercury News, so thank God for the Josh’s sleuthing. But here are some other facts that should be known: 1) the $200k IRS penalties occurred under the watch of former County Superintedent Charles Weis and CBO Ken Shelton – they were responsible for being late submitting payroll taxes in 2010 (Ochoa did not join the COE until 2012, 2) the COE received the penalty letter in December 2013 ($174k), 3) the payroll department was reduced from 6 employees to 2 because 4 employees despised the head of payroll at that time (Nimrat Johawl) an 2 retired & 2 went on medical leave, 4) so, the payroll department was left seriously understaffed and mistakes were made as a result, 5) a 2014 audit found no payroll irregularities, & 6) full staffing was restored in January 2015.

    In sum, the San Jose Mercury News has NEVER reported on this story accurately, with the full set of facts that have been long available for some reason? Everything has been blown out of proportion and innocent people have been scape-goateed as a result by that paper, but the Josh has balanced the scales with better digging and reporting. I hope Josh continues to pursue the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  15. Thank you for pointing these items out because I agree these two women are being used as scapegoats. It’s critical that all understand these irregularities occurred under a former CBO and leadership. This does not take away from the coward, Jon Gundry, that throw tantrums when things didn’t/don’t go his way, OR when the pressure is on with the outstanding reporting by Josh.

    Josh–PLEASE don’t let this one go and please stay on top of this story until this Gundry coward is gone and no longer stealing from tax payers and innocent children!! Thank you, Josh, for your relentless pursuit of the truth.

    • Why are board members not taking any action? The article already tell us the truth.