Education

Did Taxpayers Fund Cindy Marten’s Nomination?

First published on Reopen San Diego Unified

We received a spreadsheet of CARES Act spending from a Public Records Request filed last year. On it was $37,500 paid to The Raben Group, a Washington DC based Lobbyist Firm. It appears San Diego Unified used stimulus funding to hire a lobbyist to ask for more stimulus funding.

When we saw the name “Raben Group” on the spreadsheet we knew they were lobbyists because they were already on our radar. In fact, we were supposed to receive all the emails between Superintendent Marten and The Raben Group through public records release tomorrow. We’ve been waiting 10 weeks.

Just days prior to the nomination of Superintendent Marten to Deputy Secretary of Education, San Diego Unified told us it will be 3 more weeks…. just about enough time to ensure Marten’s confirmation. Why are they stalling? What is in the emails?

Here’s some background… As we reviewed board documents from the start of the school closures we noticed buried in line item 42 of 44 of the April 28th Superintendent’s Consent Agenda was an item for “Governmental Outreach Services” with The Raben Group. That sounds benign enough, but it was for $150,000 so we decided to look at the contract. Oddly the contract was only partially there. It was missing Attachment A – the scope of work. We’ve done a lot of reading of Board documents and this is the first we’ve seen missing its Attachment A.

What does it say about the San Diego Unified School Board that they voted to spend $150,000 without even realizing half the contract was missing?

How did they know what work they were approving? It’s illegal for the Board to meet and discuss topics without public notice. Even 1-1 meetings with Superintendent Marten may be “serial meetings” if they are trying to build consensus. If the Board didn’t meet serially, then we have a Board that treats tax payer money like its personal slush fund– $150,000 isn’t worth a single question or second glance? This is a perfect example of the lack of transparency and accountability at San Diego Unified.

Missing Attachment A: Oversight or Intentional?

We don’t know but it definitely made us curious.  When we finally got a copy of it. Here is what the scope says:

Such services shall include:

  • Meet with District leadership to develop a comprehensive government relations and advocacy strategy that will support the District’s key priorities;
  • Create and execute a tactical plan to significantly increase education funding for states and school districts in upcoming potential stimulus packages, and other funding vehicles;
  • Provide the District with a tailored suite of federal government relations and advocacy services to support and advance the policy and fiscal interests of the District;
  • Engage in direct federal lobbying of key Members of Congress, including Members of the relevant committees of jurisdiction, Members of both the California and San Diego delegations, and congressional leadership;
  • Strengthen relationships between District officials and the California and San Diego delegations;
  • Identify and build relationships with stakeholder partners in the education, disability, business, family engagement, and civil rights communities to help the District build consensus, maximize resources, identify creative advocacy opportunities, and raise the District’s profile as a leader;
  • Strengthen partnerships with Los Angeles Unified School District, and other large urban school districts, where beneficial.

San Diego Unified entered into an agreement with the Raben Group to raise the District’s profile as a leader and next thing we know Superintendent Marten is being nominated to the Deputy Education Secretary Post.

But the most troubling of all of this… it was paid for with Coronavirus Relief Funding! 

While we’re waiting for these emails, it’s time the public gets a look at what San Diego Unified is spending on lobbyists.

$370,000

San Diego Unified spent $80,000 with The Raben Group between April 1 and Sept 30, which is the last reporting period filed.  The Q4 report should be released shortly. Will it be another 40k? The contract in full was $150k by Dec 31st.

The last time San Diego Unified spent money on federal lobbyists was more than 20 years ago, and even then it was only $45,000.

At a State level, they have a lobbyist on staff, Enrique Ruacho, and they’ve also used School Services of California. In the last year and a half San Diego Unified has spent about $220,000 on these efforts.

You can see the bills they lobbied for here.  We especially want to point out that AB 1835 is not on the list. AB 1835 would have required more fiscal transparency. It was written after a state audit found San Diego Unified and other Districts were underspending extra money they received earmarked to help high needs students. Unspent money rolls into the general fund the following year where it can be spent on anything. The Audit found San Diego Unified underspent by $3.5 million.

SDUSD underspends money meant for vulnerable students and then blames stagnant student progress on lack of funding…

Maybe if the district actually started spending some of the funding on students they wouldn’t need to ask for more. Outside of lobbyists, most of the CARES Act funding has been diverted toward salaries. We’ll have that information in a later blog post because we are still compiling it. When we requested more documentation the district told us that “Given recent changes to deadlines, expenses may be moved out of this resource [payroll] to support items like COVID testing instead.”

We wonder if they will do the same with the Raben Group Invoices, which clearly violate the CARES Act Fiscal Assurances.

Isn’t that convenient? Just move the money from pot to pot until the budget is balanced. Meanwhile, our children languish.

SDUSD Stop Balancing Your Budget on the Backs of Our Students. Open our schools!