County Office of Ed Says It’s ‘Well Functioning’ Despite Staff Purge

At a certain point one has to wonder if this has been Superintendent Jon Gundry’s plan all along: change disclosure policies on consulting contracts; discreetly hand out a bunch of big-dollar deals; fire the internal watchdogs; and rule through fear and intimidation so any other objectors resign.

If so, the plan is going to perfection.

Gundry joined the Santa Clara County Office of Education a year ago, but it wasn’t until the last few months he’s been able to systematically deconstruct the organization that oversees 31 school districts.

San Jose Inside has published several reports on Gundry’s secret consulting contracts, many of which were designed to avoid internal and public scrutiny by coming just under the $100,000 reporting threshold. In coordination with his communications director, Ken Blackstone, the SCCOE intentionally delayed making these records known. They only acknowledged the existence of outstanding contracts after San Jose Inside published documents proving that the Public Records Act was being flouted.

Since that time, San Jose Inside has learned that in just the last three months, nine high-level employees within the SCCOE have been fired or resigned. The purge is near complete now that Gundry has handpicked allies to control the organization’s purse strings.

County chief of schools Jon Gundry fired towo employees who will now be paid their annual salaries through next summer, which could come to half a million dollars total. (Photo via Facebook)

County chief of schools Jon Gundry fired two employees who will now be paid their annual salaries through next summer, which could come to half a million dollars total. (Photo via Facebook)

The latest designation of taxpayer funds could come to nearly a half-million dollars, but not for consulting contracts—rather it will be to pay two people not to work for the SCCOE.

Earlier this month, the organization announced that Micaela Ochoa and Maribel Medina, the chief business officer and general counsel, respectively, were leaving the office. Gundry terminated both of their contracts with a year remaining, after stripping them of power to conduct contract oversight throughout the last year. Both women had contracts that promised annual salaries of more than $200,000 through next summer. The SCCOE has yet to provide full terms of Ochoa and Medina’s severance packages.

On the same day the SCCOE announced the termination of these two employees, it also noted in a press release that Gundry had hired Mark Skvarna as interim chief business officer (CBO). Skvarna was one of several secret payroll and accounting consultants to receive close to $100,000 for work that was never documented. Skvarna initially quit working with the SCCOE after details about his contract were published, but he’s since returned at an annual salary more than $40,000 higher than his predecessor, Ochoa.

Gundry has also given raises to two of his closest allies. Mary Ann Dewan, who served as interim superintendent before Gundry was hired, received a promotion to deputy superintendent with a pay bump of $63,050. Angelica Ramsey, appointed to the position of associate superintendent, received a raise of more than $40,000.

This comes at the same time that other top-level SCCOE staff has resigned—three since just last Friday—under what sources describe as Gundry’s “reign of terror.” The full list of recent resignations includes:

  • Norma Gonzales — Director of Human Resources
  • Toni Cordova — Chief Strategy Officer
  • Lisa Kaufman — Director of Early Learning Services
  • Rachel Zlotziver — Communications/PR Specialist (effective Aug. 7)
  • Gloria Chou — Assistant Controller
  • Ted O — Director of Internal Business Services (effective Aug. 3)

The last of these resignations did not end well. Sources say Ted O was escorted out of the building following his resignation and was put on administrative leave rather than serve out his final two weeks.

"People are tired of the on-going harassment, retaliation and unethical dealings by Gundry and his supporters," said a source.

An additional employee, Lisa Latt, who worked with $99,999 consultant Sue Daniel to fix the SCCOE’s payroll system, was terminated after her six-month probationary period came to an end. Sources say she was not given reason for the dismissal, but there is certainly a trend when many of the people pushed out or leaving on their own volition were responsible for financial oversight.

In the face of mass staff turnover, in addition to a growing child abuse scandal at science camp Walden West, Blackstone defended the SCCOE’s recent actions as indicative of a “well-functioning organization.” He added that summertime is usually when staff turnover is the highest. Blackstone attempted to frame the mass resignations as “professional promotions.”

Public agencies, including the SCCOE, usually limit comment on changes in personnel to start and end dates, which makes the attempt to spin the departures as a positive all the more unusual.

None of this is to say the SCCOE wasn’t a mess before Gundry’s arrival, but the superintendent has chosen a clandestine path to implement change. He has also routinely failed to inform the Board—and, by extension, the public—of how hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are being used.

There is also some question as to why he's giving so much money to Skvarna, who as a consultant billed the county nearly $20,000 for traveling to and from work during a six-month period. As part of his two-year contract to become interim chief business officer, Skvarna will not only receive up to $8,000 in moving expense reimbursements, but also an annual salary $40,000 above what Ochoa received doing the same job.

“I think any compensation is commensurate with the experience the person has,” Blackstone said, adding that Ochoa had details in her contract that brought her pay to about $10,000 less than her replacement.

“It’s equal, no matter what gender or any other factors may come in to play,” Blackstone said.

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.

35 Comments

  1. By law, and unlike local school districts, the County Board of Ed only hires/fires the Superintendent. The Superintendent then has free reign over hiring/firing of all other employees at the County Office of Ed. So he can hire/fire without having to involve the County Board of Education. In local school districts, Superintendents must bring hiring/firing requests to the local school board, which at least allows additional people to weigh in on what is going on in a district office and prevents the Superintendent from behaving as illustrated in this article.

  2. I noticed the Controller position is vacant and advertised in Edjoin. Hmmmm? No CBO, no Controller, no Director of Business, no Assistant Controller, and no Payroll Manager. Wow!

    • What a mess!!! The entire business management team all gone. Huge concern. Who will do the work???

  3. The two-year contract for consultant Mark Skvarna to be Interim Chief Business Officer is a sham. Anyone working on a two-year contract is no interim. Gundry clearly wants to bring his friend back long-term. He made Skvarna Interim CBO to get his friend paid since the bogus company scam fell through.

  4. Amazingly thorough reporting. Gundry, Skavarna, Dewan and Blackstone need to be investigated by the District Attorney.

  5. Why in havens sake would the County Board permit Gundry to bring back his consultant friend, Mark Skvarna, as Interim CBO? This criminal already violated the public’s trust. He robbed the taxpayers by invoicing outrageous amounts for his commute to and from work over a period of six 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 blatant misuse of public funds by Superintendent Gundry. See the articles below.

    http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2015/05/20/county-schools-chief-pushes-contract-with-mystery-company/

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

  6. What a scandalous disaster! FUBAR is an understatement. Board President Darcie Green obviously supports Gundry.

    • I’ll nominate Ms. Green for the Educational Nonfeasance Award for 2015. Imagine how much more harm Ms. Green can do if she is elected to the Assembly.

        • Dear Mr. Cortese: I’ll try to respond based on what I know. County Superintendent Gundry repoprts to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. They are the body that has hiring and firing authority over the County Superintendent. As Vice President, Darcie Green and her Board colleagues approved the hiring of Gundry. As Board President, it appears that she has condone his questionable dealings, abusive power and unethical and unaccountable spending of taxpayer dollars. Darcie Green became Board President in December 2014.

          Based on the eight reports provided by San Jose Inside, it is obvious that Board President Green and her colleagues condone Gundry’s foul treatment of employees and misuse of taxpayer dollars.

        • She was just elected to the county board last Nov after having been appointed. Only a few months after her election she announced she is running for state assembly. Campaigning surely takes time, especially fund raising. Is the County Board of Ed, especially Board President Green, paying enough attention to what’s really going on in the County Office of Ed? Does Ms. Green have the time to serve effectively on the County Board? And what’s up with using each elected office to climb to a higher office without first serving out even one term to which she was elected? Voters should be told up front if a candidate doesn’t intend to serve out the full term of office, but instead intends to use an office as only a short term stepping stone to a higher office.

          • > And what’s up with using each elected office to climb to a higher office without first serving out even one term to which she was elected? Voters should be told up front if a candidate doesn’t intend to serve out the full term of office, but instead intends to use an office as only a short term stepping stone to a higher office.

            Good points.

            I have no idea what’s going on with the circus at the SCCOE, but this certainly qualifies as what the political mavens call “bad optics”.

          • Guys I have to admit, I’ve supported Green for years. If you want to accuse me of bias, feel free too.

            I still haven’t seen any real reasons about this resting purely on her. Isn’t it a vote by many people to get Gundry elected? Please correct me here if I’m wrong..

            Also, Green using her position to climb to higher positions… Every politician has done that. The “Political Ladder” is very simple. School Board, Council, County Supervisor or Assembly, Congress.

            What I’m seeing here amounts to her being used as a scapegoat. As a longtime supporter, yes I’m biased, but I think everything I’ve pointed out above is fairly accurate. It’s intellectually dishonest to not make others responsible share the blame.

            If there is a single board member responsible, Josh hasn’t found that yet. Maybe a few FOIA requests will make it so, but as of right now I don’t think any of us can put the blame anywhere until that information is presented. Can we blame the Board as a whole? Yes. Should we single out one member without proof? No.

  7. Lemme C if I got this straight. Despite clear evidence that Mr. Gundry is gaming the system to shove taxpayer money into a friend’s pockets, which friend billed a lot of time for sitting in airports and in airplanes; and despite the fact that SCCOE employees are quitting or being fired in droves; Mr. Blackstone, the SCCOE flak who returned recently from taking selfies with llamas in the Andes (apparently trying to catch up with his boss Gundry, the king of selfies), assures us that everything is cool at the SCCOE, and not to worry. I guess Blackstone thinks we all just fell off a turnip truck…and we’re the turnips. Gundry’s actions deserve to be investigated. Also, the Board of Trustees, whose job it is to oversee Mr. Gundry, is asleep at the switch, and therefore deserves to be included in the investigation. Who has jurisdiction?

  8. Gundry and Skvarna engaged in several unethical and illegal arrangements, as exposed by reporter Josh on May 20, 2015 in his first investigative article, “County Schools Chief Pushes Contract with Mystery Company”. 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/Skvarna violated this requirement. Skvarna 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 commute.

    WHAT SERVICES DID SKVARNA 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.

  9. Thank you Josh for exposing these corrupt and deceitful public officials and their conspiracy. This is beyond disgusting. Superintendent Gundry and his incompetent supporters have been getting away with all these unethical and illegal activities because the board members are allowing it. They too need to be investigated.

  10. Get this information into the SJ Mercury News headlines so this scam artist can be investigated!

  11. Wow! Excellent sleuthing by Josh!! As for the purged employees, PLEASE do NOT, repeat do NOT sign any ‘hold harmless’ offers to that would preclude you from mounting an employment lawsuit. Whatever the SCCOE offers you is a pittance to what you could recover in proper suit via DFEH. Hire the absolute best lawyer you can afford. Remember, a lawsuit will require discovery and the truth shall set the public free of these abuses.

    • Yes Josh, excellent reporting!!! Please come to Evergreen Community College District and check out our outgoing Chancellor, 4 vice chancellors and the Board of Trustees!!! It is quite apparent this mentality of screwing the public and fattening their own wallets and egos must be necessary in order to be in “education” here in this valley. All shameful and a disgrace. there is a stench not only at SCCOE, but also at EVCCD!!

  12. Craig Mann- way to try and get people to rip off the tax payers again. Oh yeah, you already did that by abusing your public issued credit card. People like you are the problem not Gundry.

  13. The Santa Clara Board of Education is condoning Gundry’s activities by taking no action. Could they be part of this scam and cover up?

  14. Want pathetic: Alyssa Lynch, wannabe superintendent at MetroED is on her third year-with a “coach” being paid to coach her. More taxpayer money wasted on someone not qualified to lead a group of people to pack onions into a bag, yet getting 160k a year and a “coach” to help her show her how to do the job.

    Read up. MetroED is in deficit spending and has lost their teacher credentiling program due to mismanagement. The state teaching commission pulled the plug on Metroed. THE ONLY DISTRICT that had their credentiling program pulled in the State! Instead of being fired, the board hired her a coach.

    This is what happens when incompetent people are in charge.
    http://www.ctc.ca.gov/educator-prep/coa-agendas/2015-06/2015-06-item-35.pdf

    Instead of being fired, the school board continues with this incompetent person.

  15. Robert – unlike in many other counties, the Superintendent of the County Board of Education in Santa Clara Co. is NOT elected but is HIRED by the board of education of Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE).

  16. So, if they have the power to fire that narcissistic profligate spender who has produced no objectively quantifiable results, and not even any raw data for that matter, why haven’t they done so? They are all elected, so let’s be sure to boot them out in the next election.

    • Excellent, spot on question Mr. O’Connor. The public may not know that there are two ways to be fired; ‘without cause’ or for cause. When there is a severance package that means one has been fired due to subjective reasons (superintendent wants to bring in their own people, they don’t like the way you part your hair, etc) it is a without cause termination. When one is fired ‘for cause’, it is for clearly objective, measurable reasons such as detrimental performance, illegal, unethical or immoral actions. And when one is fired ‘for cause’ the employee is merely shown the door without a red cent being given to them. So, let’s be clear – Micaela Ochoa and Maribel Medina are two of the most ethical persons of the most highest, unimpeachable integrity. I am sure both will be gobbled up by an employer who’s ethics, integrity and public transparency are as equally unimpeachable.

      Further, by Gundry buying out these two excellent executives for $560k – the SCCBOE is less financially able to fire him ‘without cause’ which would cost the taxpayers 18 months of salary in a severance package (another ~$500k). So, even IF the board was inclined to fire Gundry his actions in firing two super competent executives hamstrings the board. IF the board is unhappy with his performance but lacks legitimate for cause termination, the best they can do is NOT extend his current contract and simply let the clock tick out for another 36 months. However, IF this board is happy with Gundry’s performance, they’ll extend his current contract by 12 months.
      Yes, the board’s next actions will inform the public as to their evaluation of Superintendent Gundry’s performance – their sole employee.

      • Craig Mann- here again your ignorance is showing. Web search Maribel Madina. She was fired by two other school districts in So. Cal. for corruption. Look it up.

  17. SCCOE, another example of an overfunded, out-of-control, unneeded and unnecessary government agency that should simply be abolished. It serves no useful purpose other than to allow and encourage career overpaid and overperked bureaucrats to feather their nests and those of their cohorts. What a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars.

    • Or, they could just change their mission statement to say they are educating people to fight global warming.

      You don’t want people to die from global warming, do you?

  18. > The East Side Teachers Association sponsored this post.

    Oh great!

    Commercial spam.

    WIth no reply button.

    Ultimately paid for be the taxpayers.

    It’s just not right.