Traci Miller was out of town at her daughter’s wedding last July when she got the call asking her to take over San Joaquin County’s notoriously troubled school district, Stockton Unified.
Two grand jury reports had chronicled lawbreaking, incompetence, secrecy, suits, countersuits, tabloid-TV squabbling, missing records, missing money, and even potential insolvency.
“I remember flying back and saying (to myself), ‘You’re going to take this on, what is my message going to be?’” Miller said.
And what she hit on was, “If anyone in this organization has done anything illegal, or anything wrong, we’re going to deal with that, and we’re not going to be afraid of what we find.”
The FBI was—and still is—investigating, as are other agencies.
The stakes are not just education for 37,000 students at 54 schools but whether the corruption will spread to Stockton city and San Joaquin County government. Trust me, the same grifters infesting the school district have a beachhead there, too.
Miller, a career Stockton Unified educator, has been interim superintendent since Aug. 1, almost five months. How goes the house cleaning?
“It’s a little bit like a twisted knot,” Miller said. “It’s going to take a while to untwist this knot, but we are making great progress.”
It’s only fair to note that the checkered 6-1 incumbent board majority held sway until November’s election. Voters elected a 4-3 reformer majority, but new trustees did not take office until Dec. 13. The old board constrained Miller until six weeks ago.
She still took steps.
Bad budgeting had run the district into the red. Millions were unaccounted for. Nobody was tracking project cost overruns. An office that got the school district grants was closed, because free money, meh.
Department heads weren’t told their budgets, causing chaos. An $8 million dollar fiasco involving a sketchy company’s ultraviolet air filters ensued when trustees suspiciously ignored bid selections. There was even evidence the district paid six figures to at least one outfit and got no services or products, nothing, in return.
Like, here … here’s six figures.
Layoffs, cuts to student programs, even insolvency loomed, the Grand Jury warned. Meanwhile, the fishy CBO pulled up stakes and left shortly after Miller took office, leaving the business office in disarray.
To top it off, Stockton Unified’s financial software, alone among county school districts’, is incompatible with the software at the San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE), making Stockton Unified a Bermuda Triangle for financial accountability.
On it, said Miller.
She hired the school business experts of Ryland and Associates and appointed a trustworthy interim CBO. Both are working to clarify murky records and ensure better budgets.
The County SJCOE, a watchdog that has growled at Stockton Unified for years, wagged its tail at the first fiscal report Miller’s people sent its way. The Office even lauded Miller and the interim CBO for “the good work they are doing.”
“The interim CBO is doing an outstanding job,” Miller added. “But what she walked into is not something she can fix overnight.”
As for missing money, Uncle Sam sent Stockton Unified $241 million in emergency pandemic relief money. The previous administration failed to account for that money, a red flag the size of Ohio.
Miller proposed a public study session where board and public could pool knowledge, ask questions, and demand answers. The session was held Tuesday night. Leaders could not account for most of the money but vowed to get to the bottom of it.
“Every dollar will be accounted for,” Miller said.
A state audit underway may find answers. If nothing else, a public airing is a welcome 180 from the previous board which refused to discuss the Grand Jury report at a town hall and instead announced there would be no more town halls.
Next up: cost overruns.
“Any change orders (the bureaucratic paperwork for additional work on projects) or cost overruns, we are bringing these items to the boards as they come,” Miller said.
The Grant Development Office will be reinstated, Miller said.
Department heads know their budgets.
Miller’s comment on the air filter scandal: “No comment.”
My comment: If anybody’s going to perp walk over chicanery at Stockton Unified, it’ll be the jokers behind the air filter deal.
As for the six figures handed to a company for nothing, “This is a part of that twisted knot,” Miller said. “There are things we are uncovering.”
Last but not least, the incompatible financial software. “I am happy to report that was one of the first things that our CBO addressed. We are moving to a new system so our school district will be compatible with other systems and with the county office of education.”
It will take a year or two, Miller said.
Alleged scams involved not just cash but jobs. Under the old regime, many senior staffers quit or were fired. It is widely believed competent people were elbowed out, new positions created, or job descriptions dumbed down so friends and relatives could be hired.
Whatever the case, the Grand Jury found many new hires lacked “institutional knowledge” (translation: “didn’t know squat”) and many were poorly trained.
Miller ordered creation of “playbooks” for certain positions so replacement staffers get a leg up. She ordered training. The board, too, will attend a workshop on school governance.
As for cronyism, “This board and I are going to have to look at the positions that were brought in. Where’s the data to justify? There is a re-assessment.”
Miller has failed to fill some key positions. Perhaps the most important is personnel chief. The job, properly called Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, involves 1,500 employees, from whistleblowers to employees alleging harassment and other serious complaints which could lead to lawsuits if neglected.
Yet the position has for months been filled by an interim staffer.
This is bad for the organization and bad optics.. Many district employees believe the last HR chief enabled Old-School corruption.
“Again, public distrust, public perception,” acknowledged Miler, who said she’s frustrated. Schools have a “hiring season” outside of which potential hires are under contract to other employers, she said.
“We have posted to find a permanent assistant superintendent of HR … Again, anyone who is currently an assistant supe anywhere in California, they are under contract. But we will be filling that position.”
For its part, the board fired (actually, voted not to renew the contract of) Jack Lipton, the district’s questionable general counsel. Lipton came in with the suspect executive team that generated the investigations. It is right that he left with it.
What about the superintendent’s job? Miller is an interim, too. “I am happy to sit in this chair as long as the board believes in my ability to be the interim superintendent.”
At least one investigation reportedly will produce results “within weeks.” More will likely follow in 2023. May the culprits get cells with ultraviolet air filters.
Until then, “I need people praying for (my) wisdom and discernment, that I’m doing the right thing,” Miller said. “I want the public to know they have a Superintendent that is deeply committed—and is losing sleep at night—and wants to cure these areas that have caused public distrust.”
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.