School district demands $2.4 million accounting

Unless it receives evidence the money was spent as intended, the Clark County School District will demand repayment of $2.4 million from the teachers union’s foundation.

The district gave the money to the Clark County Education Association’s Community Foundation to run continuing education programs for teachers from 2006 to 2011. But Superintendent Dwight Jones said the district hasn’t received “reliable accounting” for how that money was used.

“What were those dollars being spent on?” Jones asked.

The district wasn’t always so vigilant.

A string of emails and letters over the years — obtained in a Las Vegas Review-Journal information request to the district — shows the foundation did inform the district that the money wasn’t being spent as outlined in the district’s contract with teachers.

Instead, according to letters to the district from former union and foundation executive director John Jasonek, dating back to early 2006, the money was mainly used to fund STEP-UP, a program that allows high school students interested in teaching to start early by earning college credits.

“It’s not like they didn’t know,” Jasonek said of district officials when inter­viewed late last month. “Do you know how many times they called me about STEP-UP? Zero.”

From 2006 to 2011, the district wrote annual checks for up to $450,000.

But last school year, Clark County School Board members looking for potential budget cuts asked Jones to order a full assessment of any payments to outside parties.

A review showed that the union’s foundation had not provided detailed expense reports for the $2.4 million, Jones said. District officials wanted to know more, so last spring they asked the foundation for a better accounting.

“The reports we received were not adequate,” Jones said earlier this month. “We should be able to account, similar to an audit.”

Last June, trustees directed him to stop the $450,000 annual payments immediately, said Carolyn Edwards, current board member and president at the time.

“We’re not going to spend those dollars until I can get documentation,” Jones said.

HOW IT STARTED

Jasonek, now retired but working as a consultant for the foundation, said district officials are after him, not an accounting of the money: “They are trying to somehow discredit me, make a connection between them spending $450,000 and that salary I made with the foundation.”

Jasonek was union executive director from 1998 to 2010. In the beginning, he collected one paycheck for his position as a union leader. That paycheck increased an average 2 percent every year to $175,680 in 2009, according to IRS reports.

In 2000, however, he started the foundation under the union’s name and using union staff. He then opened the Center for Teaching Excellence in 2006, using district money. How much district money went to the center remains uncertain.

The additional executive director roles he took on at the newly created entities more than tripled Jasonek’s union earnings from 2003-09. His income climbed to $632,546 from the union and related organizations in 2009, the last year for which IRS reports are available. Jasonek’s main duty was union executive director, but he earned almost twice as much in his secondary capacities at the foundation and center.

The district isn’t accusing Jasonek of lining his pockets with the district’s $450,000 a year to the foundation, Jones said: “I don’t know what he made. I have no personal interest.”

But Jones does have a keen interest in where the district’s annual payouts went, and said he needs to be convinced the money was spent on programs.

The partnership between the foundation and district began in the 2005-06 school year, when Jasonek negotiated for the district to annually pay $106,000 to the foundation for teachers to participate in Urban Education Academies. The academies prepare new teachers for urban schools with high truancy and predominately poor and minority students.

He also negotiated $114,000 from the district for professional development projects that would be jointly developed by the district and foundation. That was increased to $344,000 the next year, bringing the district’s annual foundation payment to $450,000.

For the 2005-06 school year, the foundation wanted to deviate from the contract, according to a Jan. 30, 2006, letter from Jasonek to the district.

“Please make the ($114,000) check payable to the CCEA Community Foundation Center for Teaching Excellence,” Jasonek requested.

Jasonek created the center to offer college courses to teachers seeking specialty and master’s degrees. Local college instructors teach the classes.

The district didn’t write the check to the center as requested, but to the foundation, as outlined in the contract. Nevertheless, foundation President Mary Ella Holloway, a former president for the teachers union, endorsed the district check to the center.

When Jasonek requested the check for 2006-07 from the district, he didn’t repeat the request that it be made payable to the center. Again, Holloway endorsed it to the center.

QUEST FOR AN ACCOUNTING

The district didn’t object and continued to pay until spring 2011. Fran Juhasz, the district’s director of employee-management relations at the time, sent a letter to the foundation on June 1. The district requested an accounting of the dollar amounts paid for each teacher continuing their education through the center.

Jasonek sent back a stack of pages listing teachers’ names, course listings and dollar amounts.

“In the spirit of partnership and goodwill and against the advice of legal counsel, I am submitting invoices paid to all universities by the Center for Teaching Excellence,” Jasonek wrote.

The pages listed teachers and costs in spreadsheets, but didn’t include individual invoices.

“This raises some questions of what’s going on,” Edwards said last month. “We’re supposed to be partners in education. It should be transparent.”

On top of that, Jasonek contradicted previous assertions in an Aug. 15, 2011, reply to the district.

“I am not sure how this information is helpful in that the Center for Teaching Excellence has never received any financial support from the Clark County School District or any public dollars from any source.”

He restated that in an interview: “You’ll never see a check from the district to the center.”

The Review-Journal obtained copies of School District checks written to the foundation, however, which it had endorsed to the center.

When asked about the pass-through of the checks in 2005-06 and 2006-07, Jasonek said the money was for the start-up of the center. He maintained no other district money had been used.

On May 31, Juhasz sent a new information request to the foundation, this time asking for information on the Urban Education Academies. The district wanted an expense report, the names of teachers involved and a list of joint projects that were done using $636,000 the district paid out between 2005-06 to 2010-11.

It also asked for all STEP-UP expenses and student participants for 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Jasonek responded in an Aug. 15, 2011, letter, pointing out that the “district ended the Urban Education Academy well before 2009-10 in order to begin the Northeast Region Mentor Program.” The last records the district has for the academy are from 2008.

Jasonek said the union asked the district in 2007 to amend the contract to reflect that change and that all the district’s money was funding STEP-UP.

“The district declined to change the language even though the district was well aware that the district ended the Urban Education Academy,” he wrote.

Jasonek attached a spending report for STEP-UP in his August 2011 response. All $450,000 a year went to that program, he said.

The report included a list of about 250 students enrolled in STEP-UP at Nevada State College and College of Southern Nevada. It also showed total dollar amounts, such as $110,539 spent at Follett Book Store. But Jasonek didn’t provide any invoices or billing documents for individual students so the district could verify the numbers.

WHY NOW?

Jasonek said if the expense reports he submitted aren’t sufficient for the district, he would send invoices.

“We’re happy to give them the invoices, but why didn’t they ask for them in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 or 2010?” he questioned.

It’s not that district officials didn’t monitor STEP-UP from 2006-2010, said then-Superintendent Walt Rulffes. The foundation periodically reported to the School Board, updating the district on the number of students in STEP-UP, but not getting into detailed expenses, he said.

“The concern was certainly never raised,” Rulffes said in February. “STEP-UP was perceived as successful.”

STEP-UP had a specific purpose for the then-booming district, he said. The district was hiring thousands of teachers a year, but struggled to find bilingual educators for its heavily Hispanic student population.

“It was a way to grow our own,” Rulffes said.

In that respect, the return on the district’s investment has been minimal. To date, the district reports hiring 11 STEP-UP teachers.

The answer to Jasonek’s “Why now?” question is simple, Jones said. Money. The district is short on it and is asking teachers to make $78 million in concessions over two years to balance its budget. District officials want teachers to take a salary freeze and continue to pay into the state employees retirement system so 1,000 workers don’t have to be cut.

The fact that it has taken dire straits to ask questions doesn’t change that the union and foundation need to provide answers, district officials contend.

But the foundation is no longer under the union’s umbrella, according to new union executive director John Vellardita. He repeatedly has said that any connections were severed when Jasonek retired from the union and foundation in 2010.

Erin Colgrove, the foundation’s interim executive director, concurred: “We’re definitely not part of the union anymore.”

Colgrove, with the foundation since 2004, said it wants to be seen as independent. She said its main function now is tutoring Clark County students, an effort funded primarily through the No Child Left Behind law.

That still leaves the foundation and Jasonek on the hook — in the eyes of district officials — for $2.4 million if it can’t convince the district the money went to programs.

At the advice of legal counsel, Jasonek said the foundation wouldn’t pay. He argued that he can show the $2.4 million was spent on its intended purposes.

“It’s silly. Just silly,” he said.

But the district is taking the matter seriously. Jones said he ordered the district’s legal counsel to review the matter and give him options.

“Until I hear back from legal, I don’t know our next step.”

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at
tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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