When Arne Duncan visited Sweetwater’s Castle Park Middle School in September, it created quite a stir — not because he is the U.S. secretary of education but because there were concerns that the school, and the district, went on a spending spree they couldn’t afford.
In August, when the Reader inquired about preparations for Duncan’s visit, district spokesperson Manny Rubio denied to the public and the media that any money was spent. A September 4 Reader article documents problems related to Castle Park Middle preparations.
The denials from the district that followed are worth wading through because of their contrast with the emails that have recently been provided to the Reader by a source.
On August 23, the Reader sent the district this Public Records Act request: “I would like to know if any Sweetwater money is being spent on the occasion of the visit of Arne Duncan on September 13. I would like to see any invoices, itemized lists, or work orders regarding expenditures for this event.”
The swift reply from district spokesperson Manny Rubio is reproduced here in its entirety: “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.”
On the heels of the September 4 Reader article, Rubio wrote: “I just saw your article re: Castle Park Middle posted online today. I wanted to raise a couple of major concerns with you — one is your decision to only use a small portion of my response to you (included below). Your blog post insinuates that we are doing much of the work at Castle Park Middle specifically for the Secretary's Visit. As I pointed out in my email to you, there definitely are projects being done at [Castle Park Middle School], but the major projects were slated for the school prior to our knowledge of Mr. Duncan's visit. You also fail to point out that some of the cost of the event for the day are being donated by the community. I acknowledged expenses were being made, but your characterization of my response was lacking the full context of my comment.”
The Reader made yet another push for the requested expenditure information on October 15. The clerk of the board wrote 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.”
Continued attempts to obtain emails between the principal of Castle Park Middle School, Robert Bleisch, district superintendent Ed Brand, and district CFO Albert Alt were thwarted — until a source provided the emails.
Below, the email excerpts tell a different story about expenditures and Duncan’s visit:
Arne Duncan visit
Principal Bleisch wrote to Brand on July 25, 2013, “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.)”
Bleisch’s email goes on to ask Brand for support in getting: a fresh coat of paint in the cafeteria, 4–6 fans installed in cafeteria, and "college T-shirts" for students and staff.
Bleisch noted that the ceiling fans are necessary because the cafeteria “is extremely uncomfortable as it does not have AC and very poor ventilation.”
On July 26, Brand responded to Bleisch’s plea with an email to chief financial officer Alt and facilities manager Thomas Calhoun, and a cc to Bleisch: “Let’s make it a reality.”
As the emails continue, so do the district’s machinations to make this “reality” happen.
On July 29, Bleisch wrote to Alt, “It looks like Dr. Brand is giving the green light to move on this. Do I have approval to purchase college gear in preparation for the visit from Arne Duncan?”
On July 29, Thomas Calhoun wrote to staff, “Here is a high priority request for CPM [Castle Park Middle] in preparation for Secretary Arne Duncan’s visit. Please see if you can make these dates. Funding will be made available.”
On July 30, Bleisch wrote Alt: “We have no choice but to purchase a couple of stages for this event (indoor and outdoor). My ASB can afford $3000 but $17,000 is a little too steep for us. This wouldn’t be something you can help us with is it?”
As days go by, the exhortations for money for the Duncan event turn more worrisome. Data-gathering, which is a nationwide concern now in relation to Common Core Standards — appears to become a bargaining chip for money.
Data-gathering has recently emerged as a primary concern for opponents of Common Core Standards and Common Core assessments. Federal laws governing privacy for student data were weakened in 2011. Across the nation, parents have expressed concern that student data will be shared with third parties.
Castle Park Middle School is a Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood school. Promise Neighborhoods are funded by the Department of Education and claim to offer “cradle to career” services. South Bay Community Services is the organization that oversees and distributes the $60 million government investment in Chula Vista.
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.”
“We sent Dr Brand the revised [data] agreement yesterday. He said it looked good. If there is any way you can help me get that signed I then can put the pressure on them to get me the money. I plan to use this money for the stage and other things needed for the 9/13 visit.”
On August 5, Bleisch wrote Alt a reminder. The subject of the email is “Data-Sharing.”
“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, Alt wrote to various staff regarding reimbursements for Castle Park Middle School:
“With approval from the Superintendent, I have authorized General Funds to be reimbursed to Castle Park Middle ASB funds. Mr. Bleisch utilized ASB funds to purchase a stage for the school, in particular for the visit of the United States Secretary of Education, Mr. Arne Duncan. The purchase has been made, as evidenced by the check provided as back-up. Could you please initiate the transfer of funds from GF (general funds) to ASB…”
A December 3 phone call to Bleish was not returned.
Sources say that CFO Albert Alt was fired on December 2 by superintendent Brand. Alt’s September 4 email to the Reader appears to be the most accurate. Alt wrote: “Some of the purchases are general fund, some are ASB funds….”