Last year, AUSD Superintendent Kirsten Vital paid an Oakland political consulting firm $14,000 for “design and programming of AUSD website redesign.” The same firm worked on AUSD’s Measure H in 2008, and the two principals of the firm were put on AUSD’s Master Plan Advisory Group last year by Ms. Vital.
Action Alameda News made the discovery in the process of filing public records requests with the school district to get an idea of the cost of the website redesign, which took place in increasingly tough financial times for the district. On February 9th, we made a request to the school district for details on the website rework. On February 11, Danielle Houck, General Counsel for AUSD, acknowledged the request and on February 25th, she responded with the requested information.
Delegation of Spending Authority and Webmaster Position
In January, 2009, the AUSD board approved resolution number 09-0002 delegating for the calendar year 2009 to the superintendent authority to enter into “bidding contracts, purchase supplies, materials, apparatus, equipment, and services for less than $76,700 and for less than $15,000 for labor and materials.” The resolution was approved on a 3 to 1 vote, with board trustees McMahon, Mooney and Tam voting ‘yes’ and Spencer voting ‘no.’ Trustee Jensen was absent.
Later that month, the board approved a resolution on an educational technology plan update that proposed spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on network equipment, digital curriculum and a faster, more reliable Internet connection for the district. Included in the plan was an update to the District’s website.
Goal: Provide efficient and effective communications systems
Utilizing the Districts WEB presence
Develop and upgrade the District WEB Site
Put forms and documentation on WEB site
HR – applications
Fiscal – standard forms
Purchasing – lists of products and costs
District – Policies and Procedures
Technology – videos and self training
Increase and enhance parent, community communications
SchoolLoop / grades and assignments
In the spring of 2009, AUSD also created the position of “webmaster” – according to AUSD Board Trustee Mike McMahon “The webmaster position was created to support [sic] the ongoing support needed for adding new content and functionality.”
McMahon, McMahon & McMahon
The webmaster position was filled by none other than Rebecca McMahon – Mike McMahon’s daughter. According to an AUSD salary schedule and comments provided by Mike McMahon, his daughter might earn anywhere from roughly $41,000 per year to $51,000 per year, depending on her tenure, as a webmaster for the District. McMahon’s wife, Sue, is a secretary on the District’s payroll at Paden School. McMahon confirmed that there are no other family members on the District’s payroll.
On May 26, 2009, the AUSD Board approved a job description titled “Web/Web Communications.” Rebecca McMahon is listed on the website as “Webmaster/Web Communications.” The job description in the May meeting minutes reads:
This position, under the direction of the Director of Information and Technology Services, will design and maintain the District’s website(s), ensuring the continual correctness, completeness, and timelines of information on the website.
Mike McMahon told Action Alameda News that the webmaster position was filled by his daughter in July 2009, after work on the website redesign had already begun. Rebecca (Becky) McMahon told us “Yes, Mike McMahon is my father. As for the re-design of the web, I was hired after the re-design, so I had no role in the re-design process.”
However, the position was approved May 26th, and the June 9, 2009 AUSD Board meeting minutes show that the board approved a classified personnel appointment for a “McMahon” that night. The invoice for the web redesign work indicated that the work by an outside firm was done from May 2009 through August 2009.
Erwin & Muir
Maureen Erwin and Maggie Muir run an Oakland-based “Public Affairs and Political Consulting” called “Erwin & Muir.” On their website, they list Grassroots Organizing, Direct Mail, General Consulting for Campaigns among their services offered. They don’t list “website redesign and programming” as a service offered. (See below.) Yet, in August, 2009, Erwin and Muir issued an invoice to AUSD for $14,000, with the explanation “Invoice for cost of website redesign and programming from 5/09-08/09.” The amount of $14,000 was within the lower of the two limits set by the board in January for delegation to the superintendent.
Additionally, the invoice specifies that payment was due for website redesign work that began in May of 2009 – the same month that the AUSD Board approved a new position titled “webmaster” with duties to “design and maintain the District’s website(s)…”
Danielle Houck, AUSD General Counsel, confirmed for Action Alameda News that there was no written contract to back-up the arrangement with Erwin & Muir for the services referenced in the invoice.
Erwin & Muir also provide a list on their website of past campaigns they have worked on. That list includes “Yes on Measure H, City of Alameda Parcel Tax,” apparently in reference to the controversial AUSD Measure H parcel tax in 2008 which is still the subject of litigation.
Calls to both Maureen Erwin and Maggie Muir for comment on this story were not returned by press time.
Master Plan Advisory Group
In June of 2009, in a master plan update letter, Superintendent Vital announced that she had formed an advisory group to aid the District’s Master Plan development process. To that advisory group, she added the principals of Erwin and Muir, Maggie Muir and Maureen Erwin.
Excerpt of Vital’s June 2009 Letter (Emphasis Added)
To act as a sounding board and provide feedback as I move through this Master Plan process I’ve asked a few individuals to serve on an advisory group. I selected them based on their expertise and skills in curriculum, instruction, administration, fiscal background, student experience, and community outreach. Members of the group are Steve Jubb, Ed O’Neil, Sean McPhetridge, Vickie Smith, Rob Siltanen, Katherine Crawford, Jennifer Ramos, Ben O’Neil, Maggie Muir, Maureen Erwin, Ash Vesudeva, and Stephanie Wilson. If you run into them, please feel free to talk with them about the Master Plan process. I welcome everyone’s feedback. This group will end in August after the August 18th meeting.
At the time of this writing, the school district is gearing up for a campaign to pass another parcel tax, to replace the 2008 Measure H parcel tax and a parcel tax that was passed in 2002 under a school district measure known as Measure A, and increased in 2005.
At the February 23rd, 2010 meeting, the AUSD Board approved a master plan presented by Superintendent Vital. (AUSD Board member Spencer voted against approval of the master plan.) The Superintendent’s preferred plan is “Plan A” that depends on the new replacement parcel tax:
Plan A depends both on the passage of a parcel tax to replace Measures A and H and the implementation of cost-cutting measures (including streamlining the district’s central office and temporarily increasing class sizes to 24.5:1 for grades K-3 and 35:1 for 9th grade).
Overlapping Web Designers
In short, the master plan approved by the board calls for a new parcel tax, and was developed with the support of an advisory group that included Maureen Erwin and Maggie Muir, who run a firm that helped to pass the 2008 parcel tax. Erwin and Muir sat on the advisory group for a period last summer concurrent with the time period they say that they worked on AUSD’s website.
And AUSD Board Trustee Mike McMahon’s daughter was hired in June of 2009, following a board approval of a webmaster “design and maintain the AUSD website” position in May, the same month that Erwin & Muir said they began their work, which ended in August, on the AUSD website redesign. And despite her employment overlapping with Erwin & Muir’s website redesign effort, Becky McMahon herself asserts that she “had no role in the re-design process.”
We spoke to a local web designer, who did not want to be named for this article, who thought that $14,000 was too much to pay for the apparent work delivered on the new AUSD website. For example, the SchoolLoop functionality promised in the technology update is hosted by a third provider, SchoolLoop.com, which provides ready-made web page templates and is provided to school districts at no charge.
Last week, we posed a number of questions to Superintendent Vital, including:
Was this [website redesign] project put out to competitive bid? Who else bid on it? Why was Erwin/Muir selected over the other vendors?
Ms. Houck said that there was no contract recorded for this work, although the invoice is for a substantial amount – $14,000. Is this typical for AUSD? At what $ threshold would you normally have a written contract for such work?
The vendor, Erwin & Muir, advertise on their web site as political consultants, not website designers. Is there something specific that made them well-suited for this web re-design project?
In your June 2009 master plan update letter, you mentioned that both the principals of Erwin and Muir were part of the Master Plan advisory group. Can you tell me what expertise and skills either Ms. Erwin or Ms. Muir have in “curriculum, instruction, administration, fiscal background, student experience, and community outreach” – aside from their past work on the Measure H campaign – that made them well-suited to sit on the advisory board?
By press time, Ms. Vital had not responded.
Incidentally, the updated web design removed the ‘public records request’ submission form that was present in the old design, a form that Action Alameda News used routinely to request information from the District. Also, the District is being sued over unrelated issues of transparency and alleged violations of the Brown Act.