Monday, March 13, 2006

Alan Bersin's nomination is troubled

Education nominee hits snag

Alan Bersin's critics question San Diego fund's expenses.

By Todd Milbourn -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, March 10, 2006

On the eve of confirmation hearings for his place on the California State Board of Education less than three weeks away, Alan Bersin is facing questions about expenditures from an educational fund he oversaw while superintendent of San Diego schools.
A copy of a draft report from an internal audit, dated Nov. 1, 2005, and obtained by The Bee, highlights questionable record-keeping and spending from the fund, including $35,476 for meals and $3,801 for alcoholic beverages over a seven-year period.

Bersin, whom Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named secretary of education, labeled the draft report as an attempt to thwart his confirmation and settle "old political scores."

"Every one of the expenses was approved as being in accordance with purposes of the fund," said Bersin in a telephone interview Thursday. "This was all done in terms of supporting educational reform, supporting the team effort. And it was fully disclosed."

The fund in question - the superintendent's fund for innovation - was created in 1998, shortly after Bersin became superintendent of the state's second-largest school district. The fund was a partnership between the school district and the nonprofit San Diego Foundation, which gave Bersin latitude to direct expenditures. Bersin has described the fund as support for new programs in the San Diego schools.

The foundation collected money for the fund through private donations from groups such as the Walton Family Foundation, Wells Fargo and the J. Dallas & Mary H. Clark Fund.

Bersin often used the fund to reimburse his travel and entertainment expenses so the district wouldn't have to. The San Diego school board was not involved in the fund's creation and did not have oversight over its spending. That led school board members to question the foundation's activities.

Bersin spent $574,733 through the fund during his tenure, according to the report. The report calls into question about $44,871 of that, including: $471 to attend President Bush's inauguration; $160 for the Union of Pan Asian Communities annual fundraiser dinner; and $500 to Nice Guys Inc. of San Diego for an advertisement in a program booklet at an awards ceremony.

Bersin said the money was well spent, validated by improved test scores among San Diego students. Between 2002 and 2004, scores for Latino and African American students on the state's Academic Performance Index rose 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

He said the fund allowed him to bring in consultants, offer a signing bonus for a communications director and pay the commuting expenses for Anthony Alvarado, the San Diego district's chancellor of instruction who commuted from New York for a year and spearheaded aggressive reforms of classroom instruction that upset teachers unions.

"I don't think anyone, friend or foe alike, would say the changes weren't dramatic" and for the better, he said.

The review of the fund was commissioned in August by San Diego school board member Mitz Lee, a longtime critic of Bersin, who as a former federal prosecutor had no formal education experience when he took over the district in 1998. Lee said she was concerned that expenditures weren't approved by the school board, leaving potential for abuse.

"To me, it's all about the board exercising due diligence on financial affairs of the district," she said Thursday.

Lee said she also was concerned that the foundation hasn't disclosed a contributor of more than $207,000.

"What if those people have business or any conflicts of interest with the district?" Lee asked. Bob Kelly, executive director of the San Diego Foundation, couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute on Philanthropy, a charity watchdog in Chicago, said giving a superintendent his own fund is a recipe for trouble. The $45,000 in expenses questioned in the draft report works out to about $6,000 a year.

"I'm not that surprised to see these problems happening," Borochoff said. "If you're a superintendent and you want to buy alcohol for an event or go to the inauguration, the school district has mechanisms to prevent that. This gives him too much discretion beyond what his job would ordinarily allow."

Hearings on Bersin's nomination to the state board are scheduled for later this month. The fund is on the agenda Tuesday for a closed-door session of the San Diego Unified School District, said Steven Baratte, the district's spokesman. The confirmation hearing is set for March 29.


About the writer:

The Bee's Todd Milbourn can be reached at (916) 321-1063 or tmilbourn@sacbee.com.
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