Stockton Unified’s governing board has until the end of July to right the district’s financial and governance practices. The self-imposed deadline comes in response to a state audit that found evidence of illegal financial activity within SUSD.
The proposed remedies, which were laid out in a letter addressed to San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools Troy Brown from the district’s Board of Education, include a review of governing board policies and district administrative regulations to ensure compliance with state and federal law and regulations, as well as training for staff and board members.
Board trustees unanimously approved the proposed actions in the letter, signed by SUSD Board President AngelAnn Flores and the district’s interim Superintendent Traci Miller, at its meeting last week. The letter served as a response to recommendations made by Brown to remedy processes that had ultimately led to a state audit of the district’s financial practices that uncovered evidence of fraud and financial mismanagement.
“The recommendations provided to the district by the superintendent are intended to strengthen the fiscal systems and internal controls at the district,” according to a statement provided to Stocktonia Tuesday by the San Joaquin County Office of Education. “The next steps in the (audit) process, those fall to the school district.”
The state investigation, which began in February of last year and is known as an “Extraordinary Audit,” was conducted by California’s Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) investigators. Brown had requested state investigators take a look at Stockton Unified’s finances after reports from Stockton Unified employees “regarding procurement process irregularities and the unusual circumstances surrounding the award of a contract with IAQ Distribution INC., including federal funds,” prompted the investigation..
In addition to illegal financial dealings, state investigators found additional evidence of possible Brown Act violations by the SUSD Board of Education, conflicts of interest in decision making, abuse of power and that trustees and the superintendent disregarded board policies as well as the law.
As per the FCMAT investigation process, county education officials presented the audit’s findings to trustees and interim Superintendent Miller at an SUSD governing board Feb. 14, which included a formal letter from Brown laying out five recommendations the district should adopt so that similar missteps and potentially illegal activity found by state investigators do not happen again.
County officials say that their role going forward is to support the district in its efforts.
State law required Brown to report the state’s findings to the board at a regularly-scheduled meeting within 45 days of the audit report’s completion. The report was released the afternoon county officials presented a summary of the audit to the district governing board.
Stockton Unified officials were then required to respond to Brown’s recommendations within 15 days. Though the action plan was approved well after the deadline, the letter explaining the district’s intentions had been dated and sent March 1.
So what happens now?
“The first step was to respond to the recommendations,” county education officials said. “And the district has done that. It responded with an agreement of the recommendations and an action plan. Now the ball is in their court.”
However, while the SJC Office of Education is tasked in general with broad fiscal oversight of the county’s school districts, including Stockton Unified, officials say its role is not designed to be punitive. Instead, as is required by the extraordinary audit process, the county reported investigators’ findings to the proper authorities, which included State Controller Malia Cohen, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and San Joaquin County District Attorney Ron Freitas.
No charges have yet been brought against any SUSD board members, administrators, faculty or staff.
“The role of the SJCOE is to offer both oversight and support. And that is what we are doing and what we will be doing in partnership with the district,” county officials said. “The primary goal of the SJCOE is to provide support to make necessary improvements to ensure a healthy fiscal outlook for the district and to strengthen services it provides to students and families.”
Stockton Unified’s proposed audit response action plan is set to be fully completed by July 31.
Such compliance to the state investigation findings stands in stark contrast to the governing board’s behavior in recent years.
The FCMAT report came on the heels of more than two years of controversy for the county’s largest school district, including two scathing grand jury reports, accusations of financial mismanagement, looming deficit, accusations of violating public meetings laws and outrage from the public of the district’s handling of certain issues. Trustees and district administration until recently have often acted with defiance and obstinance to any outside oversight critical of their actions.
As the only commentator during trustee discussion of the letter, Board President Flores briefly addressed at last week’s meeting the change in response to inquiries she’d received both in public and private.
“I’m just going to simply say board leadership,” Flores said. No further discussion was held on the topic or the letter’s approval during the meeting.
Flores spent much of her first term as the Stockton Unified Area 2 trustee as the board’s minority of one, while also facing a tough, personal reelection battle. But she won and was sworn in to office for her second term alongside three new members, effectively initiating a changing of the guard and Flores’ rise to the board’s top spot. She was often the lone dissenting vote in the passing of myriad controversial legislation over the last few years, including a deal that saw the district purchase air purifiers with federal COVID-19 dollars FCMAT investigators described as fraudulent.
The newly-minted board president now makes up part of what some in the community refer to as a “reformer’s block” which includes newly-elected trustees Donald Donaire, Board Clerk Sofia Colón and Vice President Kennetha Stevens, respectively replacing former trustees Maria Mendez, Scot McBrian and Zachary Ignacio Avelar.
This left the former board president Cecilia Mendez, who handed her gavel over to Flores in December following the 2022 General Election, as well as trustees Ray Zulueta and Alicia Rico, respectively the former vice president and board clerk, in the new voting minority.
Flores explained to Stocktonia Monday that the board’s attitude change is the result of the new majority’s willingness to address problematic issues, which she said is made simple by her’s and the new trustees’ lack of culpability.
“We’re not guilty of these allegations,” Flores said.