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AUSD Superintendent Says Political Consultants Were Vital to Master Plan Development

Correction: The phrase Vital did say that the District saves approximately $21,000 per year over the former full-time communications specialist position… should read Vital did say that Erwin & Muir billed the District $21,000 last year, a net savings over a former full-time communications specialist position… Original article follows.

Responding to questions raised in last week’s article, Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Kirsten Vital says that political consultants hired to pass Measure H in 2008 were vital to developing the master plan approved by AUSD on February 23rd, which calls for a new, higher, parcel tax.

In last week’s article, we wrote that Vital had procured the services of political consultants Erwin & Muir, for $14,000, to “redesign and reprogram” AUSD’s website. Erwin & Muir, on their website, list the passage of Measure H, in 2008 – a controversial AUSD parcel tax ballot measure that is still the subject of litigation – as one of their successes.

In e-mails and a formal letter to Action Alameda News, Ms. Vital wrote, referring to Erwin & Muir’s work for the District, which included sitting on the Master Plan Advisory Group, that they have provided community outreach support that is “an essential component of the master plan and their work and advice in this regard has been very valuable.” Although Vital did say that Erwin & Muir have been providing services to the District since before Vital was hired, she did not provide a detailed response to our previous question asking how they were uniquely qualified to provide this support.

We also wrote that AUSD hired a webmaster – AUSD Board Trustee Mike McMahon’s daughter, Becky McMahon – to redesign the District’s website, at around the same time that Erwin & Muir began to “redesign and reprogram” the District’s website with the support of third-party contractors. Ms. Vital wrote to us:

We chose to ask Erwin and Muir to accomplish the redesign before we hired the webmaster and it took some time for the vendors they subcontracted with to deliver the work. The subcontractors were delayed in technical glitches and ended up working closely with our webmaster to get the final product up and running.

Vital says that the work with Erwin & Muir to redesign the website began “shortly after I arrived in the winter of 2009.” However, as previously reported, the invoice submitted by Erwin & Muir to the District cites work performed from May 2009 to August 2009. Further, Becky McMahon confirmed to us that her “effective start date for the webmaster/web communications position was July 1, 2009. You can check with the minutes for August 11, 2009.” And she also told us, as previously reported:

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.

which would seem to conflict with what Vital told us about the District’s webmaster working closely with Erwin & Muir to get the website going in the end.

Becky McMahon provided us with the following history of her work for the District (below) and asserted that she competed for the position of webmaster with the District as any other applicant would. In comments posted in response to last week’s article, Ms. McMahon said that it was her “background and degree in Communications” that won her the position of webmaster, a position which, according to AUSD Board meeting minutes, was tasked to “design and maintain the District’s website(s).”

August 2004- June 2008 – I worked for AUSD as a Health Office Assistant
August 2008- May 16, 2009 – I worked as a clerical substitute at haight elementary school
May 20, 2009 – June 30 – I worked in the payroll/fiscal dept.
July 1- present – here in technology

Ms. McMahon’s father was first elected to the AUSD board in 2000. Searching the Internet, we found job description after job description for webmasters that suggested that the requirements for the role included a degree in an Information Technology-related discipline and website software development skills.

Regarding Erwin & Muir, Ms. Vital never directly answered our question as to whether or not the website design project was put out to competitive bid.

Vital did say that the District saves approximately $21,000 per year over the former full-time communications specialist position, a cost-savings which is presumably offset by the estimated $41,000 to $51,000 per year salary of a full-time webmaster. She also broke-down Erwin & Muir’s $14,000 invoice, saying that work was performed by subcontractors, and that “these charges are reflected on the attached invoice” but there was no further invoice attached to Ms. Vital’s e-mail.

She also wrote that the breakdown of the subcontractor’s work was explained in “the purchase order you received in response to your public records request.” However, at the time we received that communication from Ms. Vital, we had not yet received a copy of the purchase order, which we had requested on February 26th. We had to request it again, copying the AUSD Board of Trustees, and to the credit of AUSD General Council Danielle Houck, she sent a copy of the PO over the weekend.

Here is a copy of a $64,000 purchase order from AUSD to political consultants Erwin & Muir for services for the 2009/10 year, issued on July 7, 2009. Note that it is an “open” purchase order which means that requests for services against the order can be made repeatedly over time without issuing new purchase orders.

AUSD Open Purchase Order 1100404 Erwin and Muir

Ms. Vital confirmed that there was no written contract between AUSD and Erwin & Muir for the website project, writing that “a contract is not legally required as the Board has delegated authority to Cabinet members to procure services on behalf of the District.” Vital does say that, “going forward, Erwin and Muir will have a professional services agreement with the District.”

On Tuesday, March 9th, at their regular meeting, the AUSD Board will consider an information item for “Proposed Special Meeting Dates for Parcel Tax Review and Approval.” Action Alameda News has asked that the District put us on their 24-hour notification list for special meetings, in accordance with California open meetings legislation.

20 comments to AUSD Superintendent Says Political Consultants Were Vital to Master Plan Development

  • Bob

    Thank you for researching this. Thank you for publishing your findings.

    Keep up the good work. Seems like you’re the only one in town who does any digging to get at the root of situations.

  • Anonymous

    So much for this valuable contribution by “Erwin & Muir” who billed the District $21,000 last year, a net savings over a former full-time communications specialist position. How much did the District have to pay for the full time attorney, undoubtedly hired in part to defend Meaure H and all the other legal issues fomented by AUSD? Couldn’t they save at least one classroom teacher if they fired their lawyer? And another if they fired Erwin & Muir? And another if they fired their Web Master?

  • Anonymous

    Clarification: Erwin & Miller’s purchase order is for $64,000 not $21,000! Certainly enough for a teacher. Where is the proposal for bids sent out before this contract was entered into by AUSD?

  • Vital’s explanation is that the relationship with Erwin & Muir was in place before she was hired by the district. With “open” or “standing” purchase orders, it typically means that the vendor can invoice up to the PO amount ($64,000, in this case), but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. The $21,000 for last year would have been invoiced against a previous purchase order which we haven’t seen yet. We’ve made a public records request to the District for copies of all Erwin & Muir invoices and POs from Jan. 1, 2007 to current, except for what we already have.

    More troubling for us is the contradiction between the Superintendent’s statements and the webmaster’s statements – the Supe says the webmaster helped Erwin & Muir’s subscontractors wrap up the technical details of the website re-design at the end. The webmaster says she had nothing to do with the website re-design.

  • Becky McMahon

    There is no contradiction. I am sorry if I interpreted your question wrong, but when you ask about the “re-design” I take that as the actual re-design work of the website. However, I did work with subcontractors in the end to get the FINAL project up and running. However, you asked if I had anything to do with the “re-design” of the website- which I did not. When the subcontractors passed over the project, it was already re-designed. I took the re-designed website and added content to get it ready for launch. So what Ms. Vital is referring to is correct- I did work with the subcontractors in the END to get the site ready for launch, but what I said was also correct in that I had no role in the actual re-design of the website. Which once again proves that I was hired after the work on the re-design was underway.

  • Annoyed Resident

    I know Action Alameda is trying to do the right thing by digging things up, but this is really starting to seem like a tabloid. Is David Howard a real journalist? What are his credentials?

    It just seems like he likes stirring up trouble where trouble doesn’t need to be stirred. The district is in a huge hole. They know this. Does David sit in on the meetings with Ms. Vital and know exactly whats going on? I would like to see if he is willing to do more than just be a tabloid writer.

  • It’s called investigative reporting. Alameda see’s very little of that, so it’s understandable that you don’t recognize it. Presumably you prefer that we would just publish that latest press release from the City or School District verbatim, without asking any questions, or challenging the spin? (That’s not journalism either…)

    Everyone knows the district is in a hole, but not everyone agrees on what to do about it. Split-roll parcel taxes have sparked litigation. And it’s fair to question if parcel tax after parcel tax every few years is appropriate. And it’s fair to question the District’s use of funds – spending money on political consultants, spending money to re-design a website at the same time they hire a web manager “To design and maintain the website…” etc.

    And it’s fair to hold the District to adhere to rules and protocols of public records and open meetings laws, ensuring transparency. That’s been the source of another lawsuit that consumes District funds that might better be spent on students or teachers salaries.

  • Annoyed Resident

    Agreed. Completely. Are they not allowing people in to the meetings? Are they not giving you what you want? From their comments it looks like your investigative reporting is turning to twisting words or omitting information to make them look more unorganized than they are. Parcel tax after parcel tax is not the answer. There is no one answer. The state is screwing our kids. We are 48th in the country. Is that something to be proud of? The district is right in asking the community for help. I do think the parcel tax is a good thing IF it gets spent properly. If it goes to more $14,000 website redesigns, then it’s a bad thing. Passing the parcel tax could save jobs, schools, and the redesign of the district from becoming overcrowded. Do you know how many kids are enrolled in the schools that don’t live in Alameda? There are a lot of pros and cons to the parcel tax. Close to 700 bucks isn’t going to make many homeowners want to say yes. But then there are the hopefuls that are going to say yes. Do you own a home in Alameda? Do you have kids? Is Action Alameda your full time job? Or a hobby? You never did answer my question about your credentials.

  • I wish “Annoyed Resident” would focus his/her resentment where it belongs, and that’s on the AUSD itself. And no, David is not the only journalist in town investigating all this. If A.R. would study the new “Master Plan” s/he might get a clue to what’s really in there, as a bogus attempt to justify doubling the parcel tax rate during a weak economy, when many Alameda homes are “underwater” or in foreclosure.

    It’s no time to just parrot the party line, about the State taking away all the money, or Alameda having so little compared to other districts, etc. It’s time to ask what they’re spending the money on that we give them. And yes, I pay taxes, and as a senior who doesn’t own a home, I do not vote yes on taxes I won’t have to pay.

    That Big Hole you see is caused mostly by the teachers unions, (94% of the budget), and that horrible whine you hear is entropy, the winding down of our willingness to be taken advantage of, by the 12% who have kids in the schools.

    Dennis Grrrrrreen

  • Barb

    How do we know if any new parcel tax will get spent properly?
    What AUSD has done in the past is the best predictor of how it will spend in the future.

    Approving purchase orders for $64,000 without going to bid, without a written contract, without any apparent documentation of what was paid for with the $21,000 expended of that order? And a conflict as to what and by whom the “Website” was re-designed? They have a fulltime lawyer on board now, and this is how they conduct business? What will change if AUSD is rewarded for such poor business practices by approval of yet another $659.00 parcel tax? Why shouldn’t they have to watch their pennies the way everyone else has been forced to do? Everyone is going through downturns, down sizing, homes underwater, working fewer hours if they still have a job, foreclosures. AUSD is not special, it is inefficient and poorly managed. Before it deserves another dime, it should be held accountable for how it has spent the money in the past.

  • Sharpie

    When most professional sports teams are inefficient and poorly managed, they replace the coach and start over. Perhaps Mrs. Vital does not have the prerequisite skills to lead a school district through these times. My observation is that she is great with PR such as civic organizations, web information and the Comcast videos. However she is turning off the population with Lesson 9, school closure scare tactics and miscellaneous spending.

  • Actually, we do know how many inter-district kids there are – we covered it in-depth here:

    The inter-district kids get sent primarily to west-end schools, because those are the schools that have space.

    There’s an argument to be made that elementary schools need to be consolidated to fill seats with Alameda students (funded by alameda taxpayers) than out-of-district students. East-end schools are at capacity or over-enrolled, while West-end schools are generally under capacity.

    But doing that would break a kind of de facto segregation that exists in our elementary schools – primarily asian and white students in East-end schools and the “diversity” that everyone says they love in West-end schools.

  • R. Beck

    I brought up the subject of inter- district kids at a meeting with the Superintendent and Ron Mooney and was told the money they bring in, is enough to offset the cost. Apparently there are filling empty seats in the classrooms. However, if we don’t get enough funding from the State to educate each child, the Alameda taxpayers have to make up the difference through parcel taxes. That means we are paying for these out of town kids.

  • L. Bond

    I have a question I guess somewhat related. I’ve been told that Alameda gets less funding per student because the Navy used to pay a portion of the funding, but once they left the state never increased our portion to be equal with other cities. Is this true? And if so, why isn’t any effort being put into getting our fair share?

  • Barb

    Action Alameda – The previous article – not to complain – covers only “Permitted” inter-district children attending Alameda elementary schools. Does this mean there are no children attending without such permits, and none at the high schools? If so, AUSD has improved 1000% from it was when I and my children went to AUSD. (That covers a span of over thirty years),

    To L. Bond, it is true. When the formula for ADA (the amount AUSD receives per child) was computed, it was based on how much the community istself paid for the schools. Students who had parents working Civil Service at the base, or in the military constituted 2 additional sources of millions of dollars in funds that AUSD (and Oakland) received from the federal government. Newer districts such as Dublin and Pleasanton were in the process of building schools- so paid more. Under the current formula, Alameda and Oakland suffer the most. Pleasanton and Dublin simply receive more. It is up to the state legislature to change this because the schools receive 61% of funding from the state under this formula. President of the Senate Don Perata (A former EHS teacher) and Assy. Majority Whip Wilma Chan both came from our district when they were in the State legislature and were 2 of the most powerful persons therein.
    AUSD and the Educational support groups spent their time passing parcel tax after parcel tax instead of forcing these elected officials to take care of education – something Don and Wilma both claimed, on their websites at least, to be of the highest priority to them. Ultimately the failures of these two elected officials to adequatley represent their constituents is in large part that which is responsible for our parcel taxes.

  • R. Beck

    Are you saying the more money we, the community, pay through parcel taxes, the less money we get from the State? If we pass the upcoming parcel tax, we will never see our fair share.I also understand, there are billions of redevelopment dollars available to go to the schools, but the California Redevelopment Association is fighting the transfer of the money to the schools.

  • Barb

    There will be no change in the ADA formula absent legislative action. Due to legislative inaction students in every district in the State get unequal amounts. If a new ADA is computed unequally, the districts that have passed parcel taxes could suffer. Who knows? The parents up and down the state should get together and threaten not to vote for another incumbent legislator until equal ADA is passed.

  • Barb – that chart covers only elementary schools, not high schools. We’d have to go back and dig up the chart for high schools to show inter-district kids there. Is there a documented count somewhere of “un-permitted” inter district students? We’d like to see it.

    Also – further to your point. Don Perata has family in Alameda with kids in district schools. So does John Garamendi who was California’s Lt. Governor for a while, and a long-time Sacramento politician. These family members are key players in the school parcel taxes, year over year. Rebecca Rosati-Perata was listed as the contact for KASE in 2008, when that group was the PAC for Measure H.

  • Barb

    I don’t think there is any documentation of the unpermitted students. There used to be a person who investigated suspected out of district children attending AUSD schools using some else’s address while living in Oakland. He was really busy. I believe until they are proven to be living out of district, that such information would be subject to non-disclosure due to the on-going investigations.

    As to the high schools, all one has to do is take a look at the bus stop at the high schools waiting for buses to Oakland after school is out, to see the numbers.

    Thanks for your investigation into the PAC for the parcel tax. Now I am beginning to see the whole picture. What a bunch of dupes we have been!!!

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