District Hides PR Firm Contract (Voler)

Warning: This post contains more information about Voler Strategic Advisors (Voler) than what can be found on their website here.

On 8/27/15, the CUSD Superintendent contracted Voler for public and media relations services through the District’s outside legal counsel, Dannis Woliver Kelley (DWK). The arrangement was to pay Voler via a DWK “Special Retainer” in the monthly amount of $8,500, not to exceed $59,500. Over the past year, the District has repeatedly refused to produce communications between CUSD and Voler in response to PRA requests, claiming “attorney-client privilege.” Due to public outcry, the District ended its round-about relationship with Voler in June and recently executed direct contracts with them.

Many issues exist with the District’s handling of its relationship with Voler. The diagram below illustrates the timeline and events related to CUSD’s engagement with Voler.

voler-timeline

On 7/1/15, CUSD executed a Professional Services Agreement with Dannis Woliver Kelley (DWK) for legal services. The (DWK) Agreement does not provide for services beyond the scope of legal services. A provision for “special projects” explicitly pertains to associated legal fees. The contract also lists 11 potential third-party services — all of which pertain to legal services.

On 8/27/15, Voler Strategic Advisors contracted through DWK to provide public and media relations services to CUSD. The agreement provided for a monthly retainer of $8,500.

On 12/8/15, the community first learned of Voler (and the Superintendent’s plan to build teacher housing on a school site) from a press conference held by Voler to announce “Cupertino Union School District Seeks to Build Largest Teacher Housing Project in California.” Demanding transparency, the community rejected both Voler’s arrangement with the District and the Superintendent’s proposed plan.

Community members addressed the CUSD Board regarding Voler, citing multiple infractions:

  1. Education Code 35041.5, restated in CUSD Board Policy 9124, identifies the legitimate duties of legal counsel. Voler’s public and media relations services as detailed in an agreement with DWK clearly do not qualify as legitimate duties of legal counsel per statutory requirements.
  2. Regarding payment, the DWK Agreement for Professional Services states: “District further agrees to pay for major costs and expenses by paying third parties directly…” However, as evidenced by Voler’s agreement with DWK and associated payment information, the District is funding Voler through DWK to avoid public scrutiny. This arrangement violates the terms of DWK’s contract with CUSD.

According to the District Chief Information Officer (CIO) in February 2016, payments to Voler would not exceed $68,000 (per an approved purchase order). In May 2016, the CIO reported the District’s engagement with Voler had exceeded the purchase order amount, but the District would be ending its engagement with Voler at the end of the school year.

Unexpectedly, a new Voler contract for the 2016-17 school year appeared on the Board agenda (consent calendar) to be ratified on 6/7/16 without public awareness. The agenda packet neither contained a consent summary page, nor the actual contract for the Board to review in advance of the meeting. The actual contract executed on 6/3/16 in the amount of $70,000 was obtained from the CIO via PRA request. At the Board meeting on 6/7/16, the Voler contract was pulled from the agenda due to public outcry.

At the 8/16/16 Board meeting, the Superintendent confirmed the Voler contract had been pulled from the agenda. Yet, that same night, the Board approved the minutes for the 6/17/16 Board meeting. Omitted from the minutes was any mention of the Voler contract being pulled from the agenda. The meeting minutes inaccurately implied the Voler contract had been ratified on 6/17/16.

Weeks later on 9/13/16, a second Voler contract executed on 9/8/16 for $77,400 appeared on the consent calendar for ratification. The contract was ratified by the Board without comment. Again, neither the actual contract nor consent summary was included in the Board package.

Two community members filed formal complaints with the District the week of 9/12/16 concerning Voler. Challenging the following infractions, the complaints requested an outside audit / investigation of the matter:

  1. Legality of CUSD’s initial arrangement with Voler (channeling their services through outside legal counsel, DWK).
  2. Legality of outsourcing services that are currently being performed by a public employee – a Communications Analyst who is accounted for in the CUSD Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) earning $89,889 annually. Voler’s work as reported by the District (social media / communications) is nearly identical to the responsibilities of the Communications Analyst described in LCAP.
  3. Voler does not meet the statutory requirements to qualify as a “Special Service” under Government Code section 53060. The contract amount of $77,400, falling just below the requirement for competitive bidding, is suspect.
  4. Failure of the Board to approve either new Voler contract (6/3/16 or 9/8/16).
  5. Wrongfully approving the 6/7/16 Board minutes that implied the first Voler contract had been ratified.

The fact that the Superintendent continues to sign no-bid contracts with her friends without Board approval, and the Board ratifies them without question (from the consent calendar) is beyond incompetency. Their behavior and actions are intended to misrepresent the facts and to deceive the public — seemingly fraudulent misconduct. [More details here]

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