By Mark Gutglueck
A recently released audit of the San Bernardino City Unified School District’s expenditures on contracted services offers at least a partial insight on what was at the root of the discontent among some of the members of the school board with now-departing Superintendent Doc Ervin that manifested last year and came to a crescendo earlier this year, resulting in his resignation.
Last year, Ervin was lured away from the Bakersfield City School District, where he was the superintendent there, to take the helm at San Bernardino City Unified in the aftermath of former Superintendent Dale Marsden’s 2020 exit. Ervin was hired and initially embraced by virtually the entirety of the school board and the district’s senior faculty based upon his aggressive and dedicated efforts to boost academic achievement among students, particularly as the district was lagging well behind the average level of scholastic achievement as determined through districtwide student performance on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program. One element of Ervin’s approach was to engage in an evaluation of the educational effectiveness of virtually all of the district’s educational and augmentation programs, a process of examining both what was being done well and what areas needed improvement, through what he referred to as “a listening-learning tour.” While making such an examination of the full range of the district’s programs, educational services and contracts was not a function specifically mandated upon him by the school board, he nevertheless considered looking into each program’s effectiveness to be an intrinsic element of his duty as superintendent.
Originally, Ervin had been scheduled to take on the top district position as of July 1, 2021, but he arrived a month early, and dug in at once, readying himself and the district for the challenge of opening the district’s campuses, as they had been shuttered beginning in March/April of 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and had then remained closed throughout the entirety of the 2020/21 school year as the students and teachers continued to involve themselves in remote learning.
Throughout June and July 2021, Ervin undertook, in addition to preparing for the opening of the 2021-22 school year, an evaluation that included looking at the district’s contracts in terms of effectiveness and the financial integrity of each. That examination extended to demonstrable results, the qualifications of the entities offering the services and competitive bidding in the awarding of the contracts.
What Ervin came across was that a select number of the contractual arrangements the district had entered into were questionable or worthy of reexamination. Many of those were ones that fell within the district’s Creative After-School Programs, known as CAPS.
Very early in his tenure as superintendent, while he yet had the full confidence of the board, Ervin asked for and was given authorization, at the August 17, 2021 school board meeting, to contract with the Great Gains educational approach advising firm to conduct an audit of the district’s financials and performance with regard to the Creative After-School Programs. Upon classes resuming in August 2021, Ervin continued giving scrutiny to a number of programs that in years past under his predecessor Marsden were routinely approved, some of which were provided by companies owned by individuals or companies who were personal and political associates of members of the school board.
With that audit under way, Ervin held off on reinitiating some of those contracts with the advent of the 2021-22 school year.
What Ervin did not fully understand or appreciate was that 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. Members of the board, Abigail Rosales Medina, Barbara Flores and Danny Tillman in particular, had gone along with the audit under the assumption that the contracts would remain in place while the audit was ongoing and that the audit would ultimately conclude that the work being done by the district’s contractors was legitimate in intent, conception and scope, and was being competently rendered.
By Ervin’s withholding of the extension of the contracts while the audit was yet ongoing and while no conclusion as to the impropriety of those contracts had been made, Flores, Tillman and Rosales-Medina felt he had overstepped his authority. 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.
The Sentinel is informed that Ervin, who had arrived in San Bernardino less than four months before and as such was unfamiliar with the political lay of the land, was given a relatively explicit warning at that time that at least a few of the programs he was calling into question were ones which were buttering the bread of some of the board’s associates and backers. Intrepidly, however, and because he rightfully, for the most part, perceived that he had the solid backing of four members and thus a majority of the board – Margaret Hill, Mayra Ceballos, Gwendolyn Dowdy-Rodgers and Scott Wyatt – Ervin believed he could stand by the principle of making sure that whatever programs the district sponsored would provide positive results and that it should not squander resources and funding on questionable programs the value of which could not be demonstrated.
As early as October, as was demonstrated at the October 5 meeting, three votes had emerged – those of Tillman, Rosales-Medina and Flores – to sack Ervin and thereby shut down the audits and protect the contracts with benefactors and confederates of some of the board’s members. The requisite four votes to fire Ervin were not available, and he remained in place.
On December 19, 2021, San Bernardino City Unified School District Board Member Margaret Hill died. Hers had represented a crucial vote in support of Ervin’s quest to ensure that the district’s programs had some tangible educational purpose and money intended to run San Bernardino’s schools was not dissipated on enriching the elected leadership’s cronies. Hill’s death did not immediately result in Flores, Tillman and Rosales-Medina capturing a majority vote on the board, such that they had the ability to terminate Ervin or reverse the approval of his objectives that had been previously put on track with the August 17 vote to initiate the audit or subsequent votes of the 4-to-3 majority while Hill was yet a board member to allow Ervin to continue with eliminating the district’s nonproductive expenditures and programs. Her death nevertheless put Ervin and his reform effort on uneven footing.
There took place in January and February an effort to find an appointee to replace Hill, who had most recently been reelected to the board in 2020, on the board. Some 21 applicants showed interest in the position, of which 19 and an additional compromise candidate were considered and interviewed by the board, which was at that point reduced to six members. The board was not able to reach a consensus on any of those candidates, with Travon Martin, Elsa Valdez, Albert Avila and Pamela Montana being able to capture three votes but none able to get the crucial fourth endorsement, primarily because neither side – the pro-Ervin faction of Mayra Ceballos, Gwendolyn Dowdy-Rodgers and Scott Wyatt – and the anti-Ervin troika of Tillmann, Flores and Rosales-Medina – was willing to place onto the board a fourth vote to allow the other side to prevail in either firing or backing Ervin. As it stands, a special election to select someone to fill Hill’s position for the next two years will be held in November corresponding to California’s general gubernatorial election and the regularly scheduled elections at which Tillman, Flores and Rosales-Medina are scheduled to stand for reelection.
On May 3, Ervin, weary of being in an extended touch-and-go situation and having to risk termination to follow through with the reforms to the district he felt were necessary and in the interest of the district’s students, elected to throw in the towel. He was, he said, resigning as superintendent as of July 1.
Despite his scheduled leaving and the seeming victory that handed to Tillman, Flores and Medina, it kept Ervin in place long enough for him to make certain that the Great Gains audits were completed and presented to the district.
In its report titled “CAPS Providers Governance Report” dated June 23, 2022, Great Gains examined seven Creative After-School Program service providers, including the Center for Youth and Community Development. Tillman’s wife, Tracy Tillman, is the chief financial officer for the Center for Youth and Community Development.
According to Great Gains, “Each year, members of the board of education for the San Bernardino City Unified School District are required to fill out the California Form 700 – Statement of Economic Interests. From 2018 to 2020, four of the seven board members, Margaret Hill, Abigail Medina, Danny Tillman and Louis Wyatt reported no economic interests. Board Members Barbara Flores and Gwendolyn Rogers each received subsidized travel from outside organizations and appear to be properly disclosed. [Former] Board member Michael Gallo reported three companies which he had an economic interest in at the time. None of them seem to be associated with CAPS providers.”
Tillman, Great Gains said, had engaged in a “potential failure to disclose [an] economic interest.”
That financial conflict of interest pertained, according to the report, in his wife’s employment with the Center for Youth and Community Development.
The report states, “As it relates to the CAPS Extended Learning Program, as noted in the section on the Center for Youth and Community Development, there may be an undisclosed economic interest between the Center for Youth and Community Development and Board Member Danny Tillman. In 2019, 2020 and 2021, Board Member Tillman completed the Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests required of public officials. In all three documents, Mr. Tillman selected ‘None’ in terms of the number of economic interests he has in relation to the district. If Mr.Tillman and the Center for Youth and Community Development CFO Tracy Tillman were married at the time, Mr. Tillman would have been required to submit a Schedule C disclosing that his spouse was an officer of the Center for Youth and Community Development each of those three years. Based on the above review, it appears Mr. Tillman may not have properly disclosed his financial connection to the Center for Youth and Community Development (previously Boys and Girls Club) while his purported wife, Tracy Tillman, was employed for these organizations. Since 2018, the Center for Youth and Community Development has received more than $6.6 million in contracts from San Bernardino City Unified School District.”
Great Gains further noted, “Tracy Tillman has been the chief financial officer for the Center for Youth and Community Development since March 2018. She also served as the CFO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Bernardino prior to 2018. The Boys and Girls Clubs, San Bernardino was the name of the Center for Youth and Community Development before it lost its charter in 2018.”
According to Great Gains, the matter was obfuscated somewhat. While, according to Great Gains, “there does appear to be a connection between Board Vice President Danny Tillman and Center for Youth and Community Development CFO Tracy Tillman,” the report brought up that “[San Bernardino City Unified School District] Staff has relayed to Great Gains that the marriage between Board Member Tillman and CFO Tracy Tillman may have ended.”
The report further relates, “According to the board documents sent over by district staff, since 2018, the board has voted on contracts for the Center for Youth and Community Development on the following dates 09/04/18, 05/21/19, 06/18/19, 07/16/19, 08/04/20, 06/22/21 and 10/19/21. According to the board minutes, Board Member Tillman recused himself for the Center for Youth and Community Development board votes taken on: September 4, 2018, May 21, 2019, June 18, 2019, [and] July 16, 2019. Even though Mr. Tillman did recuse himself from these votes, staff intimated Mr. Tillman continued to informally influence district officials and other board members on behalf of these entities. Mr. Tillman did vote in favor of the Center for Youth and Community Development contracts on 08/04/20, 06/22/21 and 10/19/21. If Tracy L. Tillman and Danny Tillman were married at the time, this would warrant further review as there would be an indirect financial gain due to these votes. It is possible that the Tillmans ended their relationship between 7/16/19 and 8/04/20, in which case Mr. Tillman would have likely been within his rights to vote on the Center for Youth and Community Development contracts in 2020 and 2021. If this matter warrants further review, Great Gains recommends reviewing board actions regarding the Boys and Girls Club of San Bernardino, prior to 2018 as well. Based on this information there is reason to believe that Mr. Tillman, as a board member for the San Bernardino City USD, may have been conflicted when voting on the Center for Youth and Community Development items (and possibly Boys and Girls Club of San Bernardino items) for several years.”
The Sentinel sought from Tillman his take on the conclusions reached by Great Gains, reaching him just before press time today. Tillman said he had not seen the report and did not even know one was pending.
“I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “I never heard anything about it.”
According to Great Gains, it did a survey of the other entities with Creative After-School Program contracts, those being YMCA of the East Valley, Transforming Arts and Minds, Project Life Impact, Ecclesia Christian Fellowship, Athletes for Life and the Akoma Unity Center. None of the principals in those companies had a direct connection to any of the board members, the report said.
The Sentinel carried out an independent inquiry, using the California Public Records Act, to obtain information relating to the district’s contractors, ones not limited to the Creative After-School Programs.
The district has a contract with Lilia’s Interpreting Services that provides for paying $125 per hour for a minimum of two hours whenever the service is used and $125 per hour thereafter as well as $50 an hour for written translations up to 40 hours per week with written translation work in excess of 40 hours a week being remunerated at $75 per hour. Lilia’s Interpreting Services is owned by Lilia Cisneros-Felix, a good friend and associate of School Board Member Barbara Flores.
When Lilia’s Interpreting Services did not get its contract renewed, Cisneros-Felix was vocal in her objections to Ervin’s action, leading to a tense meeting on October 5, 2021, which included a closed session item pertaining to Ervin being placed on the agenda which specified “Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release.” While Flores was able to get Tillman and Rosales-Medina to go along with firing Tillman, they could not muster a fourth vote from among Hill, Ceballos, Dowdy-Rodgers and Wyatt.
Teresa Alba is the president and CEO of Parent Organization Working for Education Rights, known by its acronym POWER. POWER at present has a seven-month not-to-exceed $18,000 contract running from December 1, 2021 until June 30, 2022 to provide support and guidance in the district’s English learning program. Alba is a friend and close associate of Flores.
Consuelo Martin is the chief operating officer of Educational Achievement Services Incorporated, which is a Nevada Corporation headquartered at 8255 South Las Vegas Boulevard Unit 415 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Educational Achievement Services Incorporated doubles as the Family Leadership Institute or FLI. It is believed that Consuelo Martin is an alias of Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who is another friend and associate of Barbara Flores. Martin/Kickbusch was able to convince the district to provide her with a $165,000 contract, paid in six $27,500 monthly installments to provide what was referred to as a “comprehensive parent leadership program.”
By Mark Gutglueck