San Diego Unified blows wad on Global Learning

Who wasted your money and how they did it

It was supposed to be a showcase for the dot-com era, dedicated to the proposition that students from kindergarten to 12th grade didn't need a "brick and mortar" school with old-fashioned teachers but instead could be taught at home, via the miracle of the World Wide Web. In the fall of 2000, the best and the brightest from the Greater San Diego chamber of commerce's "Education Roundtable," key backers of San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin and his controversial education reform efforts, brought the proposal to the school board for quick approval and funding.

The new school was to be called "Global Learning @ Home" and, according to its sponsors, it would do nothing less than revolutionize education. "The four main criteria for the Global Learning family," according to the presentation made to the board that October, "will be an adventurous spirit, a quest for the best educational experience, a high regard for the use of technology as a vehicle for learning, and the desire to be directly involved in their child's education."

Though details about the proposed curriculum and teaching methods were scarce, backers promised, "Global Learning @ Home will follow a rich, theme-based technology-embedded curriculum that emphasizes parent/student interaction, computer-assisted instruction, project-based learning and performance-based assessment. The learning materials will be both traditional and innovative in nature and come from rich and varied sources, and the curriculum choices made now and in the future will reflect changing standards in the state, country, and the world."

But two years and about $125,000 of government funding later, plans to start the school were abruptly abandoned, with little to show for the effort. "On January 30, 2001, the Board approved the granting of a charter for the Global Learning @ Home Charter School, an independent study charter school," wrote school district general counsel Jo Anne SawyerKnoll in a memo dated May 31, 2002. "The school had initially proposed to open in September 2001. This opening date was later postponed to the Fall of 2002.

"We are now advised that the charter school corporation will cease operating and that the charter school corporation will be dissolving due to less than favorable prospects for operating the school. The termination of operations should be completed within the near future. Global Learning @ Home is the first District charter school to voluntarily terminate its charter."

What happened? A review of school-district records, along with interviews with many of those involved with the startup, reveal that early plans lacked focus and suffered from poor accounting and business practices. Others close to the situation claim that interference from the chamber of commerce, conflicts of interest, and excessive spending on consultants, travel, entertainment, and dining doomed the effort.

A chamber of commerce source contends that there never really was a plan for the school, just a brochure filled with educational jargon and technical buzzwords. The school's last director, Hank Harris, says he was forced to give up and take a job in Santa Monica when the software and curriculum material promised him when he was hired by the school's board of directors failed to materialize.

Critics say that the school's failure illustrates what can happen when charter-school sponsors are too closely aligned with political interests with influence over the school district. They point to the fact that the district's assistant counsel, attorney Tad Parzen, is chairman of the chamber of commerce foundation. Others say the idea for the school was just too ambitious for the chamber foundation's limited consulting talent to deliver on.

The district and its chief, Alan Bersin, have remained silent about the school's failure. Parzen failed to return repeated phone calls. The board of education has never been briefed on the matter or discussed it at an open board meeting. "It's as if it vanished into thin air," says one district insider familiar with the case. "The people at the chamber of commerce spent all of the money on planning and travel, and then it went poof." The state's office of education, which approved the grant, acknowledges that the charter school never opened but has not conducted an audit to find out why, saying that such oversight is the responsibility of the district.

"I came in rather late," says Harris, who is now principal of Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, where he moved after leaving San Diego in the summer of 2002. "It had been two or three years in the planning. I was hired as a last possibility to see if the school could get open. I came to see in fairly short order that that was not likely. Since there was a grant involved, I thought we might as well wrap it up, and the remaining funds should go back to the state. So I tendered my resignation."

Chamber of commerce officials are reluctant to discuss the school and its troubled history. Ginger Hovenic, the school's chief architect and president of the chamber's foundation, hung up the phone after repeatedly demanding to know who had provided the school's financial records used in the preparation of this story. Two of her associates, Eden Steele and Diane Hadfield, listed in school-district documents as paid consultants to the venture, also declined to discuss their roles.

"I discontinued working with them because I went on disability," Steele said in a brief telephone interview from her home last week. "Call Ginger Hovenic and ask her about it. I heard a year later they were no longer in existence." When asked how much she was paid by the school and whether she ever claimed reimbursement for meals and travel, Steele terminated the conversation.

The petition for Global Learning, required under the state's charterschool law, was signed by Steele and two others, listed as "teacher petitioners," Hadfield and Rosemary Rodman. Steele's address was listed as 402 West Broadway, Suite 1000, the same address as the chamber of commerce. Both Hadfield, who also works for the chamber foundation, and Steele later became paid consultants to the school. Sandy Murphy, a former executive with Cox Communications, also says she had an early role in developing the school's notion of "distance learning" via the Internet.

The Global Learning academy is no longer mentioned on the Business Roundtable's website. But that was not always the case. Two years ago, the site prominently featured the new charter school. "The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation Business Roundtable for Education is actively involved in creating educational models that improve student academic performance," according to the website, which listed Global Learning as one of four charter schools that "are the result of the Roundtable's efforts since 1994."

Hadfield is currently listed on the foundation website as "Director of Projects." According to her biography on the site, "Ms. Hadfield, a 26-year classroom veteran, is a technology enthusiast and educator to the core. As computers began to enter the classroom, Diana was there -- on the forefront -- learning, experimenting, and finding innovative ways to harness the power of technology in the classroom."

Reached by telephone last week at her office at the roundtable, based at the chamber of commerce, Hadfield acknowledged she had been a consultant to Global Learning but could remember few other details. Asked if she had a contract with the school, she replied, "I don't even remember." Her duties, Hadfield said, included writing grant applications as well as Global Learning's "business plan." She then terminated the call, saying she would call back the next morning. Her assistant later called and said she would not be calling back as promised. Subsequent calls to her office went unreturned.

But the real power behind Global Learning @ Home, most of those interviewed for this story agreed, was Hovenic, a graduate of San Diego State University and former principal of Clearview Elementary School in Chula Vista. Hovenic worked for the county's Office of Education before being recruited in 1999 to become president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Foundation, as well as executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. According to one of the foundation's annual Internal Revenue Service filings, Hovenic was paid $110,000 by the foundation in 2000.

The foundation and the roundtable, which claim to be "The voice of business to improve education in the San Diego region," are technically separate from the chamber itself, although the two organizations share offices and much of the same agenda. Chamber president and CEO Jessie Knight sits on the foundation's board of directors, which is chaired by Tad Parzen, who now works as assistant general counsel for the San Diego Unified School District.

Under Hovenic, the foundation began to accelerate the start-up of so-called charter schools -- small, nonprofit educational institutions that are run independently of the school district but funded by tax dollars. "Charter schools are held accountable for how well they educate children in a safe and responsible environment -- not for merely complying with state and local school district regulations," wrote Hovenic in August 2000. The op-ed piece ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune just as Global Learning backers began lobbying the school board for a charter. "They are judged on how well they meet the student-achievement goals established by their respective charters and how well they manage the resources entrusted to them.

"These schools are required to operate lawfully and responsibly," continued Hovenic. "They must achieve equity and excellence. Like conventional schools, charter schools must teach the state curriculum and give the annual standardized reading and math exams. Unlike conventional public schools, charter schools that fail are closed.

"The Business Roundtable fully expects charter schools as a whole to continue to excel and eventually surpass their conventional public-school counterparts in academic performance. Indeed, self-governing schools that offer students, teachers, and parents innovative and creative learning resources are beginning to bear fruit."

In the fall of 2000, Global Learning @ Home was listed as one of four charters that the chamber foundation was sponsoring. The foundation's charter-school effort, according to a brochure of the time, included "developing strategic business plans" and "hiring exceptional leaders to carry out the vision of a powerful learning environment." Diane Hadfield was listed in the brochure as Global Learning's contact.

Another close tie between the chamber foundation and the Global Learning charter school was Heather Carmichael, who is listed on the school's 2002 letterhead as president of Global Learning's board. According to the chamber foundation website, Carmichael currently serves the foundation as a "business development consultant," in which she "provides expert advice to companies and nonprofit organizations on corporate strategy, marketing, and public relations."

Before that, the website says, Carmichael "served as the campaign manager for Carrie Kelleher's 1998 U.S. congressional campaign in the heart of Dallas, Texas, where she recruited over 150 volunteers, managed fund-raising activities, and developed public relations and media strategies, among other duties."

Hovenic was the school's first chairperson and president. The chief financial officer and treasurer was Peter Sibley, proprietor of Edmin.com, a vendor of educational software to school districts and a member of the chamber's education roundtable. The third member of the board was Cox's Sandy Murphy, another roundtable member, who says she left shortly after the start-up of the nonprofit corporation.

"I was asked by Ginger Hovenic to be on the board," Sibley said in an interview last week. "I think she was the founder and executive director of that. It was kind of her brainchild."

The start-up was financed by a federal "planning and implementation" grant totaling $150,000, funneled through the California Department of Education and the San Diego Unified School District. Though the chamber of commerce said it was sponsoring the school, neither the group nor its foundation appears to have ever given it any money.

In an August 29, 2001, letter to school district attorney José Gonzales, Hadfield presented the school's first financial report. "Enclosed are the financials for Global Learning @ Home Charter School. The records encompass the grant period from October 2000 through June 2001. I have instructed the accounting firm, Ocean Point Financial, to forward monthly reports to the management team, which will, in turn, submit them to you for your files. In addition, for your records, please note that Global Learning @ Home is not planning on opening until Fall 2002."

But, records show, Global Learning officials were not always prompt in filing the financial documents required under state law, and the records indicate that the school district was lax in monitoring Global Learning's progress as well as its expenditures. In a letter received by the district on February 19, 2002, then-incoming director Hank Harris promised to be more timely in his accounting. "It is my understanding that you have not received anything from us since at least November 2001, and I wanted to rectify that situation immediately.

"Do know, however, that between November 1, 2001, and January 1, 2002 (when I officially came on board), the school did not conduct any financial transactions. Financial operations resumed at the beginning of January 2002, and I am enclosing an expenditure report for the month of January. I will send you a February report in the next few weeks."

While he was head of the school, Harris also billed it for food and other expenditures, the records show. For example, on November 8, 2001, he spent $37.14 for breakfast with Diana Hadfield at the Wyndham Plaza Hotel's grill. On November 15, 2001, he spent $18.52 for breakfast with Sherree Dannee at Mimi's Café. He also billed the school $18 for "cell phone + shipping and handling."

By January 2001, $3000 of electronic hardware had also been purchased. The inventory included a compact disc writer ($1037), a Sony digital camera ($644.99), and a digital scanner ($213.88). According to a note on the inventory document, "Equipment purchased with grant funds should have a label or other identifier clearly marked on it that identifies the items as having been purchased with federal grant funds. The label should provide an identifier that clearly ties the item to the equipment inventory list of purchased items."

The record shows that Hovenic and others were repeatedly reimbursed from school funds for food, travel, and hotel stays. In April 2001, for instance, she collected $43 in "mileage/parking." In January 2001, according to the documents, she was paid $174 for "Travel & Hotel." Under the category of "Food & Entertainment," she is shown receiving a total of $191 for January 2001 and $265.28 for April 2001.

Many other expenditures made by Global Learning during the same period are listed only as payments to credit cards. During the period between October 2000 and July 2001, the records show, Global Learning spent $3948.78 for "Travel and Hotel." Of that, Hovenic was listed as receiving a total of $198; Diane Hadfield, $402; Eden Steele, $775.86; and Cynthia Finelli, $149.56. Two-thousand six-hundred twenty-two dollars and forty-one cents was listed only as being paid to four credit card companies.

In the nine months between October 2000 and July 2001, Hadfield collected a total of $10,000 in "Professional Fees" from Global Learning -- $5000 on December 13, 2000, and the same amount again on February 15, 2001. The 2000 tax return of the chamber of commerce foundation lists Hadfield as receiving $60,000 for "consulting" services.

Allegra Printing was paid $2395.24. Eastridge Group, a temporary employment provider, was paid $6156. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce Foundation itself received a total of $2800, as "cost of administration."

One company, whose proprietor says he never performed services for Global Learning, also shows up as receiving payment from the school. RMD Communications of Escondido was paid $1507.50. Dick Daniels, RMD's proprietor, was executive director of communications and community relations for the San Diego Unified School District between 1997 and 1999. Before and after that, his clients have included the chamber of commerce, for which he conducted seminars for chamber-endorsed school-board candidates on how to deal with the media.

According to Daniels, he did no work for Global Learning, other than to briefly serve as an unpaid member of its board of directors. "I didn't work for Global Learning," he said in a telephone interview last week. Asked why his company was listed on financial documents the school submitted to the district as a vendor to Global Learning, Daniels responded, "I wouldn't be able to explain it. They were not a client." He said his records showed he had invoiced the chamber of commerce's Business Roundtable for Education, not Global Learning, for $1507.50 in December 2000. "That was for work I did for the Business Roundtable, not Global Learning."

Rod Tompkins, who is listed as receiving $3083.33 from Global Learning on the same date as the payment to RMD, has also been a consultant to the Business Roundtable for Education since the early 1990s. Tompkins, former chief administrative officer of the now-defunct Great American Bank, a victim of the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s, is listed on the roundtable's website as a consultant to its charter-school consortium.

The chamber foundation's 2000 tax return lists Tompkins as having received a total of $23,686 in fees that year for "Consulting." According to Peter Sibley, who served on Global Learning's founding board and was its corporate secretary, Tompkins also was retained by the school to help wrap up its business prior to dissolution.

Another person of interest, said by several of those interviewed to be close to much of Global Learning's activities, is Cynthia Finelli. According to the partial financial records, Finelli received $149.56 from the school for "Travel & Hotel" expenses and $12 for "mileage and parking" on April 19, 2001. She was also paid $84.98 for "Printing & Publications" on March 7, 2001, the records show.

A news release dated in March 2002 says Finelli, who is listed as a current member of the business roundtable, linked up with Global Learning early in its short history. "Cindy Finelli, vice president of Generation Next Education, and education technology expert Diana Hadfield are founders and advisors."

According to a statement on its website, Finelli's company, La Jolla-based Generation Next Education, "is a 21st-century educational consulting corporation" specializing in "online curricula and content. This interactive method of presenting curriculum empowers teachers, learners, and parents, provides relevant and innovative educational opportunities, and enriches the learning experience.

"Online courses are integrated into existing curricula or designed to run as an independent program within a course of study. GNE also offers grant writing and research guidance for each educational institution to locate and secure funding from external sources in both the private and government sectors."

The statement goes on to say that "GNE is a proud sponsor of the Global Learning Charter School, an innovative tuition-free charter school in San Diego" and features a link to Global Learning's website, which as of last week was not functioning.

Both Peter Sibley, Global Learning's board secretary, and Hank Harris, the school's last director, say that it was their understanding that Finelli and Generation Next (which records show is run by Daryle Coleman, said to be a close associate of Finelli's) were to provide educational software and related services to the school. "There had been some sort of agreement that they would be the primary vendor," recalls Harris. "They were a start-up. They got into the picture because they had been involved in the founding of the school prior to my coming aboard."

Said Sibley, "There was a recommendation and approval of the board of a firm based out of La Jolla, Generation Next. I think there was ongoing work with the executive director and a demonstration of some of the work that was completed. I don't know whether it was completed or not. I don't recollect what the final deliverables were. I would be fairly certain payment of some kind was to go to them at some time."

Contacted by phone, Finelli declined to respond to specific questions about herself or her company and its role with the school, saying she would instead reply with a written statement. "Generation Next Education volunteered services to assist Global Learning @ Home during development," she said in a subsequent e-mail. "Generation Next Education did not receive any payment for these services. No one from Generation Next Education served on the Board of Directors for Global Learning @ Home. Generation Next Education was donating time and creativity to improve education in San Diego." She failed to respond to follow-up requests for further comment sent to her e-mail address.

According to records from January 2001, Global Learning had by that time spent $17,761 on "Consultancy and Technical Fees." A document titled "Interim Evaluation Form (Grant Cycle -- January 2001)" says that the school's "underlying technical core is 75 percent complete. System integration design work is ongoing. Independent study matrix is in final-draft form and the complementary eCourseware has been completed for Grade 8. Content modules are in process. Initial parent module, networking, collaboration, and communication components are in place."

Fifteen thousand dollars was budgeted for "marketing materials," including a logo. "A school logo has been developed to use in print and online materials. Informational brochures have been designed, and an initial print order has been placed. Community outreach has begun, and fundraising events are in progress.

"Fees to date include: Public Portal Content Developer, $2000; Tech Academy/Tech Training Courseware, $15,000; and Technical Consultant, $761."

Sibley and Harris say they don't know who received those fees or what material had been developed as a result. Neither does Bobbi Deporter, president of Learning Forum, Inc., an Oceanside-based consulting firm, which, according to a statement on its website, "trains educators in Quantum Learning methods; and works with major companies to shift training environments and corporate culture." Deporter says she was asked by Hovenic and Hadfield to join the board of Global Learning. She became the school's treasurer.

"I was on there only a short time. It was only a matter of months that I was involved," Deporter said in a recent interview. "I'm active in the business roundtable at the chamber, and I knew Ginger and Diana and they asked me to join that board."

Asked about Daniels's statements that he had done no work for Global Learning, and whether there might have been an exchange of funds between the chamber foundation accounts and those of the school, Deporter replied, "I would not have full knowledge of whether there was commingling of funds. I did not sign the checks. It was a short period of time, and I'm up in North County."

Asked whether she recalled authorizing issuance of checks, Deporter responded, "It's quite a while ago, so I feel uncomfortable talking about it right now. I don't remember. My mind's on something else, and you are pressing me." She said she would examine her records later and call back to clarify, but she had not done so by deadline.

In any case, Hank Harris says, he never received any of the promised computerized curriculum material. And that was the primary reason he decided he had no choice but to quit. "I was hired the prior October and was doing some pro bono work for them for a while. By then, there was not a lot of money in the coffers, so I didn't get paid until January. In mid-March I tendered my resignation.

"It had been going on two or three years," Harris recalls, noting that he had suspicions, but no specifics, about how money had been unwisely spent in the past. "Pretty soon it became obvious they didn't have a chance and no software, so I pulled the plug."

In March of 2002, according to an internal communication, the district learned that Global Learning @ Home was officially defunct and would never open. All the taxpayers had to show for their $125,000 investment in the venture, according to the records, was a tiny cache of used electronic equipment. "I just had a conversation with Ginger Hovenic, and she has informed me that the Global Learning @ Home Charter will not open at all," wrote district employee Patricia Trandal in a March 25, 2002, e-mail to higher-ups, including Kerry Flanagan, assistant to district chief of staff Terry Smith.

"She will be notifying the state that remaining funding in the desimmination [sic] will not be used," added Trandal. "She has four pieces of equipment that the charter purchased that she would like to transfer to another charter. They include a scanner, fax, digital camera, and...she could not remember the fourth piece, but it was not a computer. We both feel Cortez Hill would use the equipment and would like to transfer it there. What paperwork do we need to complete to make this transfer? She will be happy to drop it off at Cortex [sic] Hill once the correct paperwork is done."

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