By Mark Gutglueck
The opening of the 2022-23 School Year in the San Bernardino City Unified School District has revectored attention to the sheer number of charter schools being sponsored by the district. Coupled with the upcoming November election in which four positions on the school board are up for election or reelection, the issue of the efficacy of at least some if not all of those charter schools and their cost-effectiveness is being raised, particularly as one of the charter schools is run by the daughter of one of the board members up for reelection.
Scrutiny of that relationship has given rise to the larger issue of the degree to which the members of the school board, either directly or indirectly through their associates, political supporters or family members, have an interest in entities that are involved in providing educational or other support services to the district and its students.
Some have suggested that the conflicts or potential conflicts inherent in these relationships have compromised the educational mission and commitment of those running the district, as the financial interest of those supplying the services or goods overrides those commitments.
In May, the district’s superintendent since June 1, 2021, Harry “Doc” Erwin, was forced out of his position by board members Barbara Flores, Abigail Medina and Danny Tillman. There was an effort to window dress the situation and represent Erwin’s departure as one which he was making voluntarily. Nevertheless, on May 3, 2022, during the meeting when Erwin announced his pending departure at the close of the school year, Board Member Mayra Ceballos openly stated that she was being pressured to “show a united front and say that ‘Nothing’s happening. Mr. Erwin’s deciding to retire early.’ Well, he’s not. This is a forced retirement. Make no mistake about it.”Indeed, despite the board as it existed in the Spring of 2021 having unanimously endorsed Erwin ’s June 1, 2021 hiring to head the district in the aftermath of former superintendent Dale Marsden’s unexplained December 2019 decision to depart from the district in the middle of his contract in March 2020, within three months of his arrival, Erwin had put three of the board members on edge because of his insistence on examining the full range of the district’s programs, educational services and contracts. As early as July of 2021, Erwin had begun in earnest to evaluate the efficacy of the district’s myriad arrangements for the provision of services and supplies. He had undertaken those examinations quietly and without fanfare, concluding tentatively that some were ineffective, overpriced or unnecessary. Thus, still relatively 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.
The board granted him permission to make the arrangement with Great Gains to carry out that analysis. In years past under Erwin’s predecessor Marsden, those contracts were routinely approved. Some of those contracts were with companies owned by individuals who were personal and political associates of members of the school board.
With that examination under way, Ervin held off on reinitiating some of those contracts with the advent of the 2021-22 school year.
Ervin did not fully understand or appreciate the 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. Three members of the board in particular – Abigail Rosales Medina, Barbara Flores and Danny Tillman – had gone along with Erwin’s examination under the assumption that the contracts would remain in place while his inquiry was ongoing and that the audit Erwin was conducting 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 Erwin’s withholding of the extension of the contracts, Flores, Tillman and Rosales-Medina felt he had overstepped his authority. By September 2021, 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 was told 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 2021, as was demonstrated at the October 5 meeting, three votes had emerged – those of Tillman, Rosales-Medina and Flores – to sack Erwin and thereby shut down the program audits Erwin was pursuing 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.
In December 2021, Board Member Margaret Hill died. This put Erwin’s continuing tenure with the district in jeopardy, as he could be removed as superintendent or fired by a simple majority vote of the board. Nevertheless, as the board at that point was deadlocked 3-to-3 in favor of and against Erwin, the requisite majority to fire him did not exist. For more than two months, the district looked to make an appointment to replace Hill, interviewing Joshua Augustus, Roland Horsh, Robert Nowosielski, Robert Silva, Alex Avila, Travon Martin, Tawnya Rhoades-Hensley, Elsa Valdez, Tressy Capps, Guillermina Mirelez, Viviana Romero, Francesca Villarreal, Leticia Garcia, Pamela Montana, Michael Santos, Teran Zappia, Rachel Garvin, Henry Nickel, Tracie Scherzer and Leticia Garcia, all of whom applied for the appointment. The board gave serious consideration to Martin, Valdez, Avila, Montana and Garcia, but none was able to obtain a crucial fourth vote for the appointment because, ultimately, either Tillman, Rosales-Medina and Flores were not convinced the addition would agree to terminate Erwin or the other three board members – Wyatt, Ceballos and Dowdy-Rodgers – were unconvinced that the person to be appointed would be willing to keep Erwin in place.
At the May 3 board meeting, Erwin announced he was departing from the district as of July 1, 2022.
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, one of which was the Center for Youth and Community Development, of which Tillman’s wife, Tracy Tillman, was the chief financial officer.
According to that report, “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. 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.”
The Great Gains report states that “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.” Nevertheless, the report goes on to say, “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.”
The Sentinel on June 24 of this year published a 2,619-word article pertaining to the Great Gains report under the headline “Outgoing SB School District Superintendent’s Audit Caught Board Member Tillman’s Conflict.” That article noted the findings with regard to Danny Tillman, Tracy Tillman and the Center for Youth and Community Development.
Previously, at the July 19 school board meeting and this week in an exchange with the Sentinel, Tillman registered objections to several of the characterizations made in that article. He noted that his wife served as the chief financial officer of the Center for Youth and Community Development in 2018 and 2019, but had discontinued her employment with that entity thereafter, well before Erwin became the district superintendent. Initially, Tillman referenced the May 3 joint statement from the district and Erwin which held that Erwin was voluntarily retiring, and asserted he was making no assertions that Erwin had acted improperly in his role as superintendent.
“I’m not saying anything about him,” Tillman said. “Legally, I can’t talk about personnel issues. He left to go on to someplace else.”
Ultimately, however, Tillman charged that Erwin had purposefully “set me up. And that document [i.e., the Great Gains report dated June 23] was part of the scam. Those people got hired to do a hit piece on me. And you [i.e., the Sentinel] went along with them. You were looking for something that was controversial. You were trying to sell newspapers. That [his wife’s one-time employment with the Center for Youth and Community Development] isn’t controversial. I recused myself from any votes on CYCD [the Center for Youth and Community Development] or the Boys and Girls Club [a forerunner of the Center for Youth and Community Development]. When that [voting to approve the district’s contract with the Center for Youth and Community Development] happened, I walked out of the room. There was no controversy. My wife did not work for the Boys and Girls Club or CYCD while Erwin was there.”
Tillman insisted that the Sentinel was working in league with either Erwin or someone acting on his behalf to write and publish articles that made him look bad.
“You didn’t quote one source in that story,” Tillman said. “As a reporter you should have a little bit of integrity.”
When it was pointed out to him that the article was largely based upon and had quoted extensively from the Great Gains report dated June 23, Tillman doubled down, saying “That document was never released. There were nothing but whoppers in that. You repeated the lies in that [Sentinel] story. That story was meant to railroad me.”
It was then pointed out that the Great Gains report was obtained through a public records request lodged with the district and that Lou Galvin in the district’s business services division had processed the request.
“Don’t lie, dude,” Tillman said. “You didn’t do any verification. All that crazy stuff in there was from the same person who made up stuff. There ain’t nothing on me. These fools spent tens of thousands of dollars investigating me and came up with nothing. I never voted for nothing when she [his wife] was working there. What they have is some information from some fired people and people who are disgruntled. You don’t give me any names. Whatever article you write, you are not going to quote anyone. You aren’t willing to say who it is that is telling lies on me so you can keep people from knowing who it is behind all this. That’s sick stuff. That’s not journalism. You won’t take the time or effort to verify what people are telling you you should write. You can sit back and deny it but you get to say whatever you want to say because you’re making up lies. What you are writing is full of lies.”
The Sentinel again endeavored to show Tillman that the essence of the June 24 article was based upon the Great Gains report dated June 23. Tillman said using the report as the basis for an article was “unethical. That was not an audit. Auditors do audits. That company does not do audits. Look at when that company came into existence,” he said. “He [Erwin] hired a company which was created to do a BS report that never found anything after he [Erwin] got pissed off. Greater Gains did not come into existence until somebody hired them to do a hit piece on me. It’s a scam. The only question is why are you going along with them. It’s a scam. It’s a lie. That is what you have to ask yourself: ‘Why are you going along with them?’”
The Sentinel in response offered that the issue, boiled down to its quintessence, was that members of the board had relationships – financial, personal, familial or through campaign donors – with entities that had contracts with the district. The question was, the Sentinel sought to point out, whether those contracts represented conflicts of interest or not, that is whether they were entered into because the services or goods to be provided as a consequence of those contracts represented a benefit and a positive learning opportunity for the district’s students or whether the contracts were entered into to financially benefit the board members, their family members, their associates or their political donors.
The Sentinel referenced relationships beyond that of Tillman’s wife to the Center for Youth and Community Development, which included the district’s contract with Lilia’s Interpreting Services, which was not renewed by Erwin last year; the Parent Organization Working for Education Rights, known by its acronym POWER, which had 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; and Educational Achievement Services Incorporated, which is a Nevada Corporation headquartered at 8255 South Las Vegas Boulevard Unit 415 in Las Vegas, Nevada and doubles as the Family Leadership Institute or FLI. FLI last year had a $165,000 contract, paid in six $27,500 monthly installments to provide what was referred to as a “comprehensive parent leadership program.”
Lilia’s Interpreting Services is owned by Lilia Cisneros-Felix, a friend and associate of School Board Member Barbara Flores. Teresa Alba is the president and CEO of Parent Organization Working for Education Rights. Alba is a friend and close associate of Flores. Consuelo Martin is the chief operating officer of Educational Achievement Services Incorporated. It is believed that Consuelo Martin is an alias of Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who is another friend and associate of Barbara Flores.
The reference to conflicts of interest provoked Tillman. He said that equating a board member recusing him or herself on a contract involving someone with whom or an entity with which he or she is associated as a conflict of interest is a fallacy, since, he said, the recusal alleviates, avoids or cures the conflict. If the standard that is applied is that he was involved in a conflict of interest because of his having recused himself on the vote to approve a contract with the Center for Youth and Community Development, then current Board President Scott Wyatt, former Board Member/Board President Margaret Hill and current Board Member and former Board President Gwen Dowdy-Rodgers are all guilty of conflicts of interest because, he said, they have recused themselves on certain votes.
The Sentinel inquired nonetheless about the recurrence of those recusals, pointing out that in a larger context, several members of the board have potential conflicts they cure or avoid through not voting on certain issues. While those recusals might serve to insulate them legally and additionally might serve to vindicate each of them on one level, at the same time the context cuts the other way because what it potentially implies is that a majority of the board’s members have or might have direct financial interests in the district’s business or indirect interests in the district’s business through family members or associates who have contracts or other arrangements with the district. That brings into question what those board members’ motivations are collectively and what each members motivation is individually in assuming a position of authority over the district.
At issue is whether the board members are there to serve the district’s students or whether by their presence on the board they serve their cronies and family members by ensuring that the contracts and arrangements involving their family members or associates are approved. The district serving as a cash cow for board members’ family members or their personal or political associates raises that question. Though board members have consistently recused themselves from votes involving their family members and their associates, their board colleagues have consistently voted to approve those contracts. That raises the question as to whether the board members are trading votes of approval among themselves to ensure that these conflict-laden issues are approved all around.
Thus, it appears, the board members will vote to approve an item upon which another board member has a conflict and is recusing him or herself with the understanding that when he or she is faced with a conflict which requires a recusal on his or her part, he or she can count on his or her colleagues voting to approve the contract or arrangement. The question is whether members of the board are scratching the backs of their colleagues so that they can themselves get their backs scratched.
Indeed, the board itself seemed intent on getting an answer to that question when it unanimously commissioned the Great Gains examination, with Tillman’s support in 2021.
Such a question is unwarranted, Tillman insisted, and to the extent that the Great Gains report raised that issue, the report was not only unwarranted and impertinent, but malicious. He rejected a question as to whether he bore responsibility for the perception of a conflict when it came to his family members having a financial relationship with the district.
“I had an evil person working in my district and they did some evil shit the first time they used district funds to do a hit on me,” Tillman said. “I dealt with sickos. I accept responsibility, yes. I hired some sick people and when I hire sick people, it is my responsibility. When you hire someone like that, you see what you did, and you fire them.”
The Sentinel confronted Tillman with the consideration that the contract with the Center for Youth and Community Development, for whom his wife once worked, was not the only matter upon which he had recused himself. Last year, the district renewed its contract with the Savant Charter School, also known as the Savant Preparatory Academy of Business, of which Tillman’s daughter, Eva Tillman, is the principal.
Charter schools exist as efforts in public asset privatization, and are semi-autonomous public schools that operate using public funds with only minimal oversight by the state school system. They are granted operating permits or are “chartered” under a written contract with a state, a school district or county school superintendent, which are referred to as the authorizers or sponsors. Such a contract – or charter – details how the school will be organized and managed. The ostensible justification for charter schools is that charter schools can function outside the normal parameters of normal schools and can offer a curriculum and educational smorgasbord unavailable in traditional public schools while meeting the requirements of both special needs students and accelerated scholars.
In the case of the San Bernardino City Unified School District, it is sponsoring 15 charter schools, including ASA Charter School, Ballington Academy, Entrepreneur High School, Hardy Brown College Prep, iEmpire Academy, New Vision Middle School, Options for Your SB-1, Options for Your SB-2, Options for Your SB-3, PAL Charter Academy, PAL Charter Academy Middles School, Public Safety Academy, Savant Preparatory Academy of Business, SOAR Charter Academy and Woodward Leadership Academy.
Attention was brought to the Savant Preparatory Academy of Business and its relationship to Tillman through his daughter when the school reopened with the beginning of the school year this month.
The Sentinel asked Tillman to straightforwardly address the suggestion that while he has been serving as a San Bernardino City Unified School District board member, his wife and daughter have benefited by working for companies or entities that have contracts or arrangements with the district.
Asked what he could say about that circumstance to allay that perception and how he might reassure his constituents – the parents of the children attending the schools he oversees as a board member – that his concern lies foremost with their children being educated so they are armed to move into adulthood with necessary life skills rather than seeing to it that his wife and daughter were or are able to profit by their professional relationships with the district, Tillman said, “I have absolutely no legal or other way of controlling my daughter. She and others filed a petition for a charter school. Any time that it came up for a vote, I left the room and did not vote. Their petition for their charter school was approved. I make it a point to never talk to district staff about Savant Prep.”
Tillman added, “I recently interacted with a new high-level administrator in our district who brought up the subject of Savant Prep. Each and every time, I told the administrator that I would not talk about that institution. That is an example of my normal practice separating myself from district staff and the operation of Savant Prep.”
Tillman said, “I am very proud of my daughter and the amazing work that she does at Savant Prep. She loves and educates her students the same way that I love her and valued her education. Savant Prep has turned out to be one of the highest performing schools in the State of California.”
Tillman noted that the objections to his family’s relationship to the district reflect political rivalry.
“It is election season,” he said. “I believe the statement made by someone else: ‘Politics are the peaceful substitution for warfare.’ Election season is wartime.”
He is a decent man fighting for what is right while being maligned by others, Tillman said. He will press on, he vowed.
“I don’t mind fighting a good fight that benefits children,” he said.
Erwin Sacking & Board Election Trigger SBCUSD Cronyism, Nepotism Focus
By Mark Gutglueck