Twin Rivers Unified school board President Linda Fowler has received thousands of dollars in consulting fees from a new adult charter school that she was instrumental in establishing last year.
Highlands Community Charter School paid Fowler’s consulting firm $13,000 in two October installments to pursue a federal startup grant for the fledgling program. Fowler said she split the money with another consultant working on the grant.
The past payments – and a tentative new arrangement by which she can earn $600 a week – have prompted a complaint to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Jacob Walker, the school’s academic coordinator, alleged last month that Fowler violated conflict-of-interest rules by using her position on the Twin Rivers board to pressure the school into hiring her.
Under the state Education Code, a school district board member cannot work as a district employee. But Fowler, a retired state auditor, said charter schools can employ trustees in the same district and that she has spent 25-30 hours a week on the $475,000 startup grant.
“I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty,” Fowler said. “Why should I work for free when it isn’t against the law?”
The Twin Rivers Unified School District board established the Highlands school in March 2014 to give students older than 22 an opportunity to earn high school diplomas, learn vocations or improve English skills. Fowler was considered its most vocal advocate on the Twin Rivers school board.
Fowler has been a local school board member since 1971, when she was elected to the former North Sacramento Elementary District. She moved to the Twin Rivers Unified board in 2007 after North Sacramento and three other districts merged.
She said she was promised a paid role at Highlands by other charter founders during planning meetings at Coco’s Restaurant before Twin Rivers approved the school. The group included Fowler, as well as Walker, Kirk Williams and Ward Allen – all three of whom worked at a different district adult school until it closed in 2013.
In planning talks, the four of them doled out jobs before the board approved the charter, Fowler said.
“Jacob will be the coordinator of academics. Kirk will be the principal. Ward will the the truck driving instructor,” Fowler said, recalling how the conversations went.
At the Twin Rivers Unified board meeting on March 4, 2014, Fowler made the motion to approve the charter for Highlands. The board, including Fowler, voted 7-0 in favor.
Traditional schools and public school districts are governed by three different sets of conflict of interest laws, said Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, an advisory group. The laws basically say that public officials cannot use their positions to influence a governmental decision if they have a financial interest.
But rules governing charter schools are murkier, and some charter school officials believe broad education conflict-of-interest rules do not apply to them. A law that would require that charter schools abide by the same conflict-of-interest laws as other public schools was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September. A similar bill, Assembly Bill 709, has passed the Assembly and is in the state Senate.
Charters are, at the very least, subject to the California Corporations Code governing nonprofits, Premack said. The code says that a board member must refrain from voting if he or she has a financial interest in the matter before trustees. The remaining board members must make a finding that they couldn’t have found a better deal elsewhere, Premack said.
After Highlands opened, the founders took board positions at the new Highlands school. Williams stepped down from the board after being hired as principal and Walker stepped down in October after the school year had started.
“I was in a conflict of interest myself,” Walker said. “It’s a gray area of the law. Whether it was right or wrong, I was in an ethically bad place.”
Fowler became a member of the Highlands Community Charter School board after her Twin Rivers colleagues selected her as the liaison between the district board and the school. She did not vote on her own contract and stepped down as a member of the Highlands board on Sept. 18, the day other Highlands trustees approved her contract in closed session and a week before they passed it in an open meeting.
She told the board, however, that she would continue to vote on Highlands board items as the liaison from Twin Rivers, according to minutes.
Fowler’s contract did not last long.
The Highlands board terminated its arrangement with Fowler’s firm, LAED Consulting, four days after receiving a Nov. 15 letter from Williams, which said Fowler had a conflict of interest and that her contract was too expensive and lacked accountability. Williams asked the charter board to draft a letter to the Twin Rivers board asking that Fowler be removed from her position as the district liaison to the Highlands board.
In one example, Williams wrote in November, “Many of us were witness to Ms. Fowler’s threats like, ‘It’s because of me that the school got its charter, I can cause the school to lose it.’”
The Twin Rivers Unified board will consider renewing the school’s charter in four years.
The issue re-emerged June 27 when the charter school board voted to pay Fowler $600 a week for lobbying, prompting Walker to file his FPPC complaint three days later. Beyond alleging that Fowler violated conflict-of-interest rules, Walker said she threatened to harm the school if she wasn’t paid, pointing to conversations similar to what Williams described.
Fowler said she never threatened the future of the charter or anyone associated with it. “After the charter, they wanted me out completely,” she said of Walker and Williams.
Walker questioned the recent vote to pay Fowler $600 a week to lobby for the district, despite earlier concerns. “Basically we are going to pay her to represent us when she is supposed to be here for oversight,” Walker said. “It makes us look like this dirty charter school.”
The Highlands board passed the new agreement conditionally, and it is still being reviewed by attorneys, Fowler said.
In a July 1 letter to the Twin Rivers Unified school board, Walker asked trustees to suspend Fowler’s appointment as liaison to the charter school until the FPPC completes its review. He also asked that they refrain from voting to make her district school board president at that night’s meeting.
“I came to speak tonight because I believe this district should be led by ethical individuals,” Walker told district trustees that night.
The board voted 4-2 to name Fowler its new president.
On July 6, the district said in a statement: “We take the allegation seriously. The district will fully cooperate with the FPPC, and the superintendent will provide a report to the Board of Trustees if and when a final determination is made.”
FPPC officials are reviewing the complaint and said they could not comment on the case.
Fowler said she received a list of needed repairs at the charter campus from Williams a few days after the FPPC complaint was filed against her. The Twin Rivers board president said she had previously met with Superintendent Steven Martinez about upgrading the campus, which belongs to the district.
But those days are apparently over.
“I’m not doing it for free,” she told The Bee.
Editor’s note (July 20): This post has been updated to correct the reference to Fowler’s occupation to auditor rather than attorney. She has a law degree but worked as an investigative auditor for the California Department of Justice.