The Twin Rivers Unified school board and its superintendent failed to intervene when one trustee faced a conflict of interest by becoming a paid consultant and board member for a district charter school, the Sacramento County grand jury found in its most recent report.
The grand jury launched its investigation after a series of Sacramento Bee articles about trustee Linda Fowler’s relationship with Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools. Fowler is currently the board president of the Twin Rivers Unified School District.
“It is troubling that the trustee, the TRUSD board and the superintendent failed to perceive the importance and immediacy of addressing the allegations of conflict of interest,” the report says. “Conflict of interest laws prohibit public officials from participating in governmental decisions affecting their financial interests and forbid public officials, including school district boards, from being financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any board of which they are members.”
Highlands Community Charter School paid Fowler $13,000 in October before canceling the contract when the school principal questioned its propriety. Fowler’s firm was paid to pursue a federal startup grant for the adult education school. She said she split the money with another consultant.
Jacob Walker, an academic coordinator at the adult charter, complained to the Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that Fowler used her position on the Twin Rivers board to pressure the charter school into hiring her. He objected to the consulting contract, as well as an arrangement that would have paid Fowler $600 a week.
The FPPC launched an investigation in June 2015 to determine whether Fowler violated conflict-of-interest rules by accepting consulting fees from the charter school. The investigation remains ongoing.
Fowler didn’t answer calls for comment Tuesday. Last year, she told The Bee that school board members can legally work for charter schools in their district, and that she should get paid for her efforts.
Twin Rivers Superintendent Steven Martinez issued a statement Tuesday in response to the grand jury report: “I want to assure our school community that the board of trustees and I fully understand that action, accountability and integrity are essential to create and maintain public trust. We agree with the themes discussed in the Grand Jury Report, including the importance of respecting and upholding public trust.
“While trustees receive regular governance training – including conflicts of interest – the report is a clear call to action to review and fortify trainings and adherence to our legal obligations. We have a new board, and we are currently working on a series of trainings both to ensure compliance and to reaffirm a shared vision of student success.”
Martinez, Twin Rivers and Highlands Community Charter board members and a charter schools expert were among those interviewed by the grand jury as part of its investigation.
The grand jury said that Fowler voted to approve the charter school on March 4, 2014, without announcing that she had a financial interest in the matter. After the board approved the charter petition, Fowler requested and was appointed to be the Twin Rivers representative on the charter school board.
The charter school is the only one in the district to have an appointed representative, according to the report.
“During the interview, the trustee stated repeatedly that there was no conflict of interest,” said the report. “However, TRUSD board bylaws and the HCCTS charter petition include the provision to adhere to conflict of interest laws.”
Twin Rivers trustees couldn’t agree to put the conflict-of-interest matter on their agenda for a discussion and vote despite concerns raised by the charter school board, according to the grand jury report. The report said that the superintendent and the board president at that time were unaware Fowler was a voting member of the Highlands board.
Twin Rivers trustee Michael Baker said that Fowler has stepped down as a Highlands Community Charter School board member. He isn’t pleased that the grand jury pointed the finger at all the board members.
Baker also defended Martinez. “The superintendent works for the board,” he said. “The board doesn’t work for the superintendent. We give direction to the superintendent. He doesn’t give direction to the board.”
He doesn’t believe that Fowler has done anything illegal. “I don’t think she is wrong at all,” Baker said. “She is really passionate about this charter school and she wants it to be successful, not for her own personal gain but for the kids at this school. I truly feel Linda Fowler wants this school to be successful.”
He points to her June re-election as evidence the community is behind Fowler.
Still, Baker said he wouldn’t have put himself in the position that Fowler is in. He is general manager for an ambulance company and said his firm doesn’t bid on Twin Rivers contracts to supply ambulances for home football games to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. “We are invited every year, but we don’t bid on it.”
The grand jury recommended that Twin Rivers ensure its members don’t have any conflicts of interest and receive training every two years. It asked that the superintendent and board president clarify the authority and duties of a board member also serving on a district charter board.
The district is required to submit a response to Sacramento Superior Court by Sept. 29.