Effort To Root Out Cronyism Cost SBCUSD Superintendent His Tenure

Less than a year after Harry “Doc” Ervin assumed the position of San Bernardino City Unified School District superintendent, he was forced to depart this week after a series of intense backroom clashes with no fewer than two of the school board’s members relating to nepotism, cronyism and favoritism involving district officials, which were exacerbated by Ervin’s personality conflict with another board member.
According to well-placed sources in and around the district, Ervin’s agenda to concentrate district personnel and resources toward improving academic performance of the district’s students ran into stiff headwinds when he undertook a review of whether a multitude of existing contracts with educational specialists and specialized service providers fit those educational goals. Some of those contract holders had connections with elected board members, who began a pushback against Ervin’s review as early as August 2021, less than three months after he assumed the position of superintendent.
In September 2021 and again in October 2021, Ervin’s methodical evaluation of the educational merit of the services provided to the district under those contractual arrangements and their comparative value along with his continuing hesitancy to re-actuate those contracts created a dividing line among the board members. A little more than three months into his tenure, two board members had grown antagonistic toward him, a third was leaning against him and four members of the board remained steadily behind him.
The December 19, 2021 death of San Bernardino City Unified School District Board Member Margaret Hill had a critical impact on the prospects for Ervin’s continuing tenure as superintendent, as Hill was a solid vote on the board in his favor. In the weeks and months after Hill’s passing, the six remaining members of the board were unable to come to a consensus on an appointment of Hill’s replacement. This left the board with two board members strongly in favor of Ervin’s sacking and one leaning in the direction of cashiering him. When it became apparent that three votes to relieve him of his post were in place, Ervin’s will to remain as superintendent began to waver.
Ervin started on the path that led him to San Bernardino and now away from it more than 35 years ago.
After being discharged from the U.S. Marines, he had walked off the grounds of Camp Pendleton and shortly thereafter matriculated at Alliant International University in San Diego where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies and a Master of Science degree in education administration. He began in the educational field as a teacher.
Upon obtaining his administrative credential from California State University, Fullerton, he moved into the position of assistant superintendent of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, where he established programs specifically targeted at increasing students’ Academic Performance Index scores.
Subsequent to that, he landed the position of superintendent of the Greenfield Union School District in Monterey County, where he was touted for reducing truancy rates. In 2016, he was hired as the superintendent of the Bakersfield City School District. He was nearly three-and-a-half years into and fully engaged in that assignment in December 2019 when 164 miles to the south, Dale Marsden abruptly announced his intention to leave as superintendent with the San Bernardino City Unified School District mid-contract four months later, in March 2020.
Ervin was not even vaguely aware of that development at the time. In San Bernardino, the district promoted Harold Vollkommer, then its deputy superintendent, to serve as interim superintendent. Vollkommer remained in the interim superintendent’s position for more than two years. In March 2021, he announced that after an exhaustive search Ervin had been chosen to move into the superintendent’s post, effective July 1, 2021. In actuality, Ervin moved into the superintendent’s post a month early, on June 1, 2021.
A rare amalgam of an intense academic and a by-the-book Marine, Ervin took a formalistic approach to running the district and examining both what was being done well and what areas needed improvement, a process he referred to as “a listening-learning tour.”
His hiring coming as it did, a year after the main manifestation of the coronavirus pandemic, which had resulted in the shuttering of classrooms throughout the state and the substitution of remote teaching/learning models, Ervin’s most visible initial role as superintendent was guiding the district as it reopened classrooms with the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year in August 2021.
Less apparent was that Ervin had proven highly energetic in examining the full range of the district’s programs, educational services and contracts, a function that had not specifically been mandated upon him by the school board but which he considered an intrinsic element of his duty as superintendent. That evaluation included looking at the district’s contracts in terms of effectiveness and financial integrity. That examination extended to demonstrable results, the qualifications of the entities offering the service and competitive bidding in the awarding of the contracts.
In this spirit, the school board consented in a vote taken on August 17, 2021 to contract with the Great Gains firm to conduct an audit of the district’s financials and performance.
Ervin, having concluded that a select number of the contractual arrangements the district had entered into were questionable or worthy of reexamination, held off on reinitiating those contracts with the advent of the 2021-22 school year.
As it turned out, unbeknownst to Ervin, who had only recently arrived in San Bernardino, there were long-existing relationships between some of the purveyors of those contracted-for services and both members of the school board or other influential and politically-empowered members of the community. By September, the Sentinel is informed, at least two members of the school board were irate over the district’s foot-dragging in committing to the continuation of those contracts.
Additionally, an inadvertent act on Ervin’s part had poisoned his relationship with another school board member, Danny Tillman. Tillman’s community involvement went beyond his status as a member of the school board. Tillman previously ran for both Congress and San Bernardino mayor. He actively supports youth engagement programs, including those encouraging young people to participate in sports, community service and educational programs in a context outside of school. One of those programs involved making school district facilities available for semi-organized athletic competitions, including basketball games. Because the informal arrangements that had been made granting the youth sports program access to a district basketball court did not include the school board having voted formally to provide that access or any formal written agreement, Ervin deemed the risk of liability and the security hazard in allowing those involved in the program to use district facilities to be unwise and ill-advised. Accordingly, he instructed the district’s police department to prevent district grounds from being accessed by those participating in the program. Thereafter, Ervin and Tillman were at loggerheads.
Relatively early on – by September – there was resistance to Ervin’s leadership. At the September 21 school board meeting, several members of the public spoke, many of them expressing sentiment against Ervin and his leadership substance and leadership style as well as the restrictions and safety protocols relating to COVID-19 that the district had put in place. Some of those participating by way of the remote teleconferencing Zoom program spoke in Spanish. Ervin, who is fluent in Spanish, did not need to wait for the interpreter to inform him that he was the object of much of the criticism voiced. One theme reiterated by those speakers was that Ervin had misrepresented having been accessible to parents, and they characterized as untruthful his assertions of having met with them.
There was a simultaneous subtext to what was going on in terms of the public comment. While some of it had perhaps arisen organically as a consequence of what some considered to be the district’s overbearing COVID precautions, there was also an element of some political oxen having been gored by the imposition of Ervin’s policies.
The Sentinel is reliably informed that a handful of companies or individuals offering paid services to the district had been cut off or were facing being cut off as a consequence of the contract reexaminations Ervin was engaged in, and that the proprietors, managers and employees of those companies, some of whom were actively engaged in political support of members of the board, were pressuring the board to either induce Ervin to reinstate those contracts or fire him outright.
In the aftermath of the September 21 meeting, there was a suggestion that sufficient votes on the board existed to terminate Ervin. Because the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, prohibits members of an elected governmental board from meeting together or in sequence to formulate a vote outside of an officially convened public setting, there was not certainty as to whether sufficient votes existed at that point to effectuate Ervin’s removal. At least two of the board’s members, nonetheless, were willing to explore whether there was resolve to banish Ervin from the district. At the board’s next meeting, on October 5, a closed session item pertaining to Ervin was placed on the agenda which specified “Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release.”
Indeed, during that session, which was held outside the view or earshot of the public, the board considered jettisoning Ervin as superintendent. The Sentinel has learned that board members Abigail Rosales Medina, Barbara Flores and Danny Tillman entertained, at least, the concept of releasing Ervin as superintendent. Supporting Ervin in the face of those calls were board members Margaret Hill, Mayra Ceballos, Gwendolyn Dowdy-Rodgers and Scott Wyatt.
Ervin was chastened by the manifestation of three of the four votes required to chase him from his position, though he was yet convinced he was engaging in sound management by conducting the reviews he had undertaken. On October 11, he put out a public statement.
“I respect the concerns and appreciate the support of everyone who spoke at the past two meetings,” Ervin said. “My goal is to help take SBCUSD to a higher level of excellence with better outcomes for the kids in our schools. Our district has great people and programs going for it and we want to build on the solid foundation that’s already here. Change is not easy and educating children is hard work in the best of times. With COVID, these are not the best of times. My hope is that as we start moving forward everyone will come together to do what’s right for kids just as they did in the past three districts I led.”
In the ensuing months, Ervin persisted in continuing with the policies he had committed to and instituting the reforms he felt appropriate.
Prior to Hill’s death, Ervin had 4-to-3 support of the board or what was represented to the Sentinel as an even more comfortable 4-to-2 support, with one of the board members neither fully committed to opposing Ervin nor supporting him. With Hill’s passing, however, his position became far more precarious, such that Medina, Flores and Tillman were ready to change district management at once if another vote to do so manifested. The effort to find Hill’s replacement to serve out the remainder of her term until it elapses in December 2024 reached its apex in February, at which point no consensus could be formed in settling upon one of the 19 people who had applied for that honor, including five – Travon Martin, Elsa Valdez, Albert Avila, Pamela Montana and Leticia Garcia – who were given serious consideration but could get only two or three of the four votes needed to be selected.
At two of the five regularly scheduled board meetings held since, on April 5 and this week’s meeting on May 3, the board was scheduled once again to discuss “Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release.”
It is not clear whether the employee being discussed was Ervin.
Within the last three weeks, the Sentinel has learned, Ervin resolved to leave the district with the close of the current school year. This precluded the need for Medina, Flores and Tillman to find a fourth vote to force Ervin’s departure.
According to a source highly placed within the district, upon Ervin enunciating his intention of stepping away from the district, Medina, Flores and Tillman readily supported him in that decision, Board President Scott Wyatt reluctantly acquiesced to it as Ervin’s personal decision to make and board members Ceballos and Dowdy-Rodgers were opposed to accepting Erwin’s departure.
After returning from the closed session at Tuesday night’s meeting, the board and staff, including Ervin, continued with the meeting’s proceedings as usual. Upon reaching that portion of the meeting relating to reports and comments from the superintendent and staff, Ervin took the floor.
A hint of what was coming was presaged by what appeared to be Ervin doing a recap of his accomplishments with the district. He said that the “district did a really good job of reopening schools for in-person learning by navigating an ongoing pandemic” and that under his direction district staff and the board “engaged hundreds of our stakeholders …during our listening-learning tour… shining a light on the district’s most urgent issues.” He cited the district’s effort to “establish the equity access and innovation division. I knew that was important to ensure that all students have the support and opportunity that they need to be successful. I really wanted to enhance our college readiness for high school students districtwide.” He pointed out that the district “engaged parents to improve communication” and he referenced what he said was an important “pilot program for … literacy and math” laboratories, which he said the district would apply in wider venues throughout its schools in the future. He touted, as well, a “teacher-led effort to align curriculum and assessments. I hope the educational community was encouraged by our work,” he said, saying that he has sought, while he has been in San Bernardino, to do what he has pursued throughout his career, which is to “accelerate student performance.”
Ervin said, “I think we all know its been a very challenging year. Even the last couple of years have been challenging and personally, I think we’ve made some really impressive steps forward as we think about the… framework for excellence as we’ve thought about the service delivery models. I think the team, and all of our stakeholders should be proud of the progress toward implementing strong curricular and strong instructional, operational, social, emotional and also wellness systems.”
At that point, Ervin cut to the quintessence of what it was he was saying.
“After careful thought and consideration, and really after close to 30 years of public service, I’ve decided to retire from the San Bernardino City Unified School District, effective July 1. Is it tough? Yeah, of course it’s a tough decision, but I made this decision, one, after talking to my family, my kids and my wife and you want to have those conversations when you make big decisions, but also my health, because I want to go into the future still being healthy. And then also – I know people are not going to agree with this or understand this – but in the best interest of the kids who attend our schools. I always think about ‘This is bigger than me.’ Everything we do is bigger than me. It’s about kids. And I know that my presence sometimes can impact that, and I don’t want my presence to impact that and the work we do for kids. I really came here to the district hoping to accomplish a few things in the last rodeo part of my career, specifically really to take the district to the next level of student achievement, because I still believe the district’s got a lot of great things happening and I truly believe that. However, we all know that sometimes – and I believe publicly that people have to understand that sometimes – in educational institutions but in any organization there’s occasional philosophy or philosophies that are not aligned. And when they’re not aligned, it gets in the way of progress. That’s okay. That’s just the reality of the world we live in. I’m okay with that. But I do believe the future of the district will be better served by a superintendent who aligns more closely with not only the board’s leadership style but the educational philosophy, because that’s in the best interest of the kids and the students we serve. I believe they will be able to get someone, and the district can find someone that as they move forward that’ll help them move forward and continue the work they’ve already done because there’s already been a lot of good work done.”
Having taken the high road and held back with regard to a number of issues roiling below the surface, Ervin then hinted that perhaps some of his political masters on the board were militating not for providing for the best educational opportunities for the students of the district but rather toward some unspecified venal goal.
“Our actions, attitudes behaviors and beliefs should always reflect our commitment in making decisions that are good for kids,” he said. “When you don’t do that, silence is acceptance.”
Indication that Ervin was being forced from his post came a little later when Board Member Gwendolyn Dowdy-Rodgers said, “I’m clearly disappointed at how we arrived at this place. The vote I made for a qualified and seasoned superintendent that I would support has never wavered. Yet here we are.” She lamented that the board and district are now at “an impasse when it comes to education,” which she attributed to “a refusal to work as one body toward the success of this district.”
Board Member Mayra Ceballos was even more explicit, saying that she was being pressured to “show a united front and say that ‘Nothing’s happening. Mr. Ervin’s deciding to retire early.’ Well, he’s not. This is a forced retirement. Make no mistake about it. When he came on board, it was a 7-0 vote. He’s leaving with a 4-2 vote. Obviously, I didn’t vote for any of it. I voted against it. I believe he stepped on some very powerful or influential people’s toes in the district, and he is being run out of town. That is my personal belief. Whatever repercussions we have to face as a board, then we own up to them. That is accountability, the same type of accountability that we ask for our employees, that we ask of our students, high expectations. That applies to us, as well. We are accountable to people out in the community. I still don’t understand what the conflict has been. I don’t see that he’s done anything wrong, aside from personality differences, rubbing people the wrong way. Are we adults here? I am embarrassed to sit up here. Let’s see how many other of our executives leave us. We’ve… wasted time, wasted resources, money, yes.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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