Documents expose school district for spending big on Arne Duncan visit

December 4, 2013

Trevor TenBrink Trevor TenBrink

Trevor was website administrator for EAG from December 2012 to March 2014.
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CHULA VISTA, Calif. – When Arne Duncan visited Sweetwater school district’s Castle Park Middle School in September, many were concerned the district went on a spending spree with money it didn’t have.

Arne VisitIn August, the San Diego Reader inquired about preparations for Duncan’s visit but district spokesperson Manny Rubio denied to the public and media that any money was spent.

When the Reader followed up with a Public Records Act request, they received the following reply from Rubio:

“The district is not making any additional expenses for Secretary Duncan’s visit. There are a couple of projects that were already underway at Castle Park Middle (such as solar panels and benches being refurbished in the quad area) that got underway prior to our knowledge of Mr. Duncan’s visit and are ongoing. The school will be hosting a community event later in the day (after the Secretary leaves) where several items such as catering are being donated.”

But the Reader did not stop there.

They continued to push for the requested expenditure information from the school board and received this response:

“Your request to me was for ‘money spent on the occasion of the visit of Arne Duncan.’ There were items purchased for the school to use, but not specifically for Mr. Duncan’s visit.”

The situation became even more suspicious when the Reader was repeatedly denied in their efforts to obtain emails between the principal of Castle Park Middle School, Robert Bleisch, district superintendent Ed Brand, and district CFO Albert Alt, according to the story.

For a brief period, it looked as if the district was going to succeed in covering up their spending spree. That is, until a source provided the emails to the Reader.

On July 25, 2013, Principal Bleisch wrote to superintendent Brand, “We just got word that Tyler, Arne Duncan’s staff, will be visiting CPM [Castle Park Middle] on 8/8 @ 10:00. The purpose of the visit is to check out the facilities. As a result I plan to invest ASB [Associated Student Body] money ASAP to upgrade the cafeteria prior to this visit ($5,000 for new stage, $5,000 for new blinds, $5,000 college banners.)”

The email continued on to request support in installing several fans in the cafeteria, adding a fresh coat of paint, and purchasing “college T-shirts” for students and staff.

On July 26, Brand responded to Bleisch’s request with an email to CFO Alt and facilities manager Thomas Calhoun, and copied to Bleisch: “Let’s make it a reality.”

The emails that follow are even more damning for the school district.

They include Bleisch requesting $17,000 for a new stage, $3,000 for flags, and $5,000 for college banners. These were all requests in preparation for “Arne’s visit.”

The district even went to such lengths as to come to a data-sharing agreement with a government-funded organization in return for a payment of over $100K.

Castle Park Middle School – the school Duncan visited – is a Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood school. These Promise neighborhoods are funded by the Department of Education and offer “support services.” The South Bay Community Services is the organization that oversees and distributes the $60 million government investment in Chula Vista, the Reader reports.

According to the emails, the school received a large payment from South Bay Community Services to help pay for the preparation by Arne Duncan.

In exchange for this payment, the organization used a data-sharing agreement as leverage. The emails clearly show the organization was withholding the money until the principal delivered the data-sharing agreement.

On August 2 Principal Bleisch wrote to Alt: “By the way, FYI-SBCS [Promise Neighborhood/South Bay Community Services] is prepared to give my school a good chunk of change (over $100K of PN money allocated last year for staff that was not used.) The catch is that they are kinda using the data-sharing agreement as leverage. They promised to expedite this money transfer as soon as we deliver on the data agreement.”

Bleisch sent several more emails in regards to this proposed agreement with South Bay Community Services, including this reminder to CFO Alt:
“Just a kind reminder if you can help us get this data-sharing agreement signed. FYI-They’re [reference to South Bay Community Services] holding up money until I deliver on this [smiley face] need this PN money to pay $17k for a new stage and $3000 Flags, $5000 cafeteria college banners for Arne’s visit. (The revised agreement is signed and forwarded.)”

On August 22, CFO Alt sent an email authorizing that district General funds be used to reimburse Castle Park Middle school ASB funds.

Alt states in the email, “Mr. Bleisch utilized ASB funds to purchase a stage for the school, in particular for the visit of the U.S. Secretary of Education, Mr. Arne Duncan.”

Sources tell the Reader that CFO Albert Alt was fired on December 2 by the superintendent.

It’s clear from the obtained documents that the Sweetwater school district is hiding a great deal of information from the public regarding Duncan’s visit.

And it seems as if the firing of Alt was just the first domino to fall.

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