Monday, June 11, 2007 | In the past 13 months, the San Diego Unified School District has paid more than $130,000 to a part-time communications consultant under an unusual arrangement designed to allow him to receive district money while also collecting a state pension.

Hired originally to oversee the district’s communications department, Dick Van Der Laan’s responsibilities — though not his pay — were trimmed significantly when the consultant learned that the work would force him to lose out on retirement benefits.

Keeping Your Friends Close

  • The Issue: The San Diego Unified School district has paid more than $130,000 to a communications consultant under a special arrangement designed to allow him to also collect his pension.
  • What It Means: The consultant, Dick Van Der Laan, was one of nearly a dozen former acquaintances of Superintendent Carl Cohn who have received senior district jobs since Cohn took over in July of 2005.
  • The Bigger Picture: Some school board members, and Cohn critics, say the arrangement illustrates the authority Cohn wields over the district, and the elected school board’s inability to rein him in.

While Superintendent Carl Cohn said the consultant, a former acquaintance who worked with him when Cohn headed the Long Beach Unified School District, has brought unparalleled knowledge to the district, critics of the superintendent argue the deal demonstrates the extent to which Cohn has taken charge of the district’s direction with little protest or input from the school board.

In March 2006, the school board approved an $11,350-per-month contract for Van Der Laan to guide the district’s communications department, which responds to media inquiries and mediates communications between different district offices. A former communications director in Long Beach, Van Der Laan is one of nearly a dozen former Cohn acquaintances who have been recruited to top district positions in the 23 months since Cohn took over as the head of San Diego’s school system. Since Van Der Laan’s arrival, the district has gone to great lengths to keep him here.

Van Der Laan had retired from Long Beach Unified after Cohn left the district in 2003 and, since then, has been collecting an annual pension from the California teacher retirement system.

His original contract specified that Van Der Laan would provide “an overall urban school district communications analysis and related services” on a full-time basis, and board members who voted on the contract say Van Der Laan was brought in to fill a position left vacant by the departure of the district’s former communications chief. Shortly after the contract was approved, the district printed business cards listing Van Der Laan as the “interim communications director” and a staff memo announced that he had assumed “the director duties.”

However, when Van Der Laan learned that retaining the position would force him to exceed the earnings caps set by the state retirement system and therefore lose out on pension payments, district lawyers, under the direction of Cohn, patched together a new agreement that allowed the consultant to keep nearly $10,000 a month in compensation from the district while also receiving his retirement checks, several board members said. The new agreement provided that Van Der Laan would work as a part-time consultant for the district through its legal office, though for just $2,000 less in monthly pay, and also meant that the school board had to appoint another employee to serve as the district’s official communications director.

According to the district’s salary schedule, the pay for the communications director ranges between $75,000 and $96,000 per year.

Since then, several board members said they have received little information on the scope of Van Der Laan’s work or how his position has differed from that of the district’s own communications chief.

Cohn, who said the consultant has provided invaluable help in fostering a culture of success at the school system, conceded the district has been unusually creative in shaping Van Der Laan’s contract with the district.

‘Long Beach South’

Nearly a dozen top district officials are former acquaintances of Superintendent Carl Cohn, many from his days as the head of the Long Beach Unified School District
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“The most important thing for me was to draw on his four decades of experience,” Cohn said. “The General Counsel’s Office was basically tasked with finding a way for how to make that legit.”

As the district prepares to vote later this month on a budget that includes layoffs for classroom staff and other school employees, two school board members say they will call for a review of the amount of money paid to the consultant and of his work.

The Person or the Job?

In monthly invoices, Van Der Laan has offered only vague descriptions of services he has provided to the district. On some bills, he described his work as “communications consultant” and on others as “monthly consulting for the communications department.”

An appendix to his contract with the district covered an equally general list of responsibilities. One includes documenting and “reporting ways the San Diego Unified School District is working to become America’s best large urban school district” while another tasks Van Der Laan with assisting district administrators “with two way communications with parents and community regarding curriculum, achievement and educational goals of the school, area and district.”

Board member Mitz Lee, who has been the most vocal with her concerns about the arrangement, said she has on numerous occasions asked, but has yet to receive, a breakdown of what it is that Van Der Laan actually does.

“It’s really, really hard to see what exactly is the final product,” she said. “The question to me is, do we just want to keep the person, or do we want to keep the job, the functions that he is providing? We bring people because they are of essential service to the community.”

Another board member, John de Beck, indicated that the board would take a close look at the position when it considers the district budget later this month.

“If I have a choice between a librarian and two people in public relations, I would take the librarian,” he said.

Yet, on three separate occasions, the school board voted on extensions to Van Der Laan’s initial contract, which expired on Aug. 31, 2006.

“We tend to recognize the fact that the superintendent Cohn is a veteran superintendent, one who knows what he’s doing, and he’s achieving good results,” Board President Luis Acle said. “I view the situation in the context of what is the best management team that the superintendent can put together, and on that, frankly, I hope we’re not second guessing him. … Generally speaking, I think we tend not to meddle in the management activities, and this is definitely management.”

Reluctance to meddle is a position distinct from the one the board president took in May, when district staff asked the school board for permission to hire an ethics assistant to help educate employees about proper conduct. The board refused and, at the time, Acle argued that the new position would excessively overlap the duties of the district’s communications department.

“I’m also sympathetic to the idea that we have to be frugal on a consistent basis,” Acle said at the time. “If we’re going to downsize, we have to downsize. We can’t print money. And we have to be responsible to the taxpayers as well.”

A month earlier, the board voted to extend Van Der Laan’s contract through the end of 2007. Acle said he saw little conflict in the positions, since the ethics associate would have communicated primarily within the district and Van Der Laan communicates primarily with those outside — even though his contract states that he is to assist the district with its ethics campaign and fraud hotline.

In an interview, Van Der Laan repeatedly deemphasized the importance his pension played in structuring his consulting gig with the district. It was never his intention to take on the full time director’s position, he said.

“It’s really a part-time assignment,” Van Der Laan said. “I have a family situation that really doesn’t allow me to make any long-term commitments, and to go fulltime.”

As part of the consulting job, Van Der Laan said he assists “a number of offices on a number of projects.”

Cohn said it would be unfair to suggest that the Van Der Laan was duplicating the work of the district’s own communications department.

“I don’t accept the premise that we have two people. There’s a lot of communications work here,” he said. “You could argue that we also have phantom general counsels every time we shop a special problem (to outside law firms).”

Sherry Reser, a spokeswoman for CalSTRS, the state’s teacher pension system, declined to comment on Van Der Laan’s arrangement, though she said most pension funds include rules that limit the ability of pensioners to work in the same industry after they retire.

Under the CalSTRS rules, retirees cannot make more than approximately $27,000 in a school position that requires a state credential or certificate.

“People are collecting their pension, and certainly they’re allowed to go back to help school districts out and get extra income, up to a certain point,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s fairness to everybody that you can’t collect a pension and go back into the classroom and get the same amount of money. It’s a matter of fairness to all concerned, and the best interest of the fund.”

‘Becoming America’s Best’

Just as school board members have played a small role in overseeing Van Der Laan’s contract, they have also provided little input in his work.

Lee recalls returning from a one-month vacation last summer to find that district materials sent home to parents included a new district logo and a new mission statement, neither of which had been approved by the board. Previously called “San Diego City Schools” on official publications, the district was calling itself San Diego Unified.

The board had also not voted on the new motto, “Becoming America’s Best.”

The district’s new personality was developed by Van Der Laan, one that some officials say reminds them of Long Beach, which was previously named “America’s Best Urban School System” after winning the coveted Broad Prize.

“What irks me is that it wasn’t a board item,” said board member Katherine Nakamura, who said she was generally supportive of the superintendent’s ability to shape his own staff.

Another board member unhappy that the changes never went before the board was de Beck. He has recently expressed concerns that Cohn has been running roughshod over the elected trustees and criticized the board for being too mired by internal divisions to present a united front against any of the superintendent’s initiatives.

The school board, de Beck said, faces the risk of simply becoming a rubberstamp for the superintendent.

Asked if that was already the case, de Beck said: “Let me put it this way, I haven’t been saying ‘no’ to much.”

Cohn, who pointed out that San Diego Unified has always been one of the district’s official names, said he saw no reason to take the changes to the school board.

‘Cohn’s Clones’

Van Der Laan is only one of several Long Beach coworkers that have followed Cohn south to his new job. The district’s general counsel, Ted Buckley, came to San Diego from the Long Beach district, as did Assistant Superintendent for Parent and Community Relations Dorothy Harper. Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores, who came to San Diego Unified in Sacramento, also previously worked with Cohn in Long Beach.

Two of Cohn’s former doctoral students — he taught at the University of Southern California immediately before coming to San Diego — have also assumed top jobs in the district.

Cohn makes no secret of his prior relationships with many of the people he brought in, though he argues that almost all of the promotions that have taken place during his administration involved people who were at the district already. Ursula Kroemer, who replaced Van Der Laan as the district’s communications director, previously worked for the department, for example.

“What you’ll find is that there is a Long Beach connection, there is a USC connection, there is a Broad [Foundation] connection, there is a Harvard connection, there is a UCLA connection. There are quite a few connections,” Cohn said.

Privately, some district staff members refer to the administrators the superintendent brought with him as “Cohn’s clones” and call San Diego Unified “Long Beach South.” Some school administrators have also complained that Cohn has left too much day-to-day oversight of the district to academics with little practical experience or knowledge of San Diego, a central grievance in their push to form a new union.

Cohn said there is little validity to the suggestion that he was trying to remake San Diego Unified in the image of Long Beach, though he says the city’s school system has much it can learn from his old employer.

“Long Beach is really an award-winning school system,” he said. “No superintendent should be apologizing for getting people from Long Beach involved.”

Cohn said he suspects that much of the friction is the result from his growing rapport with the teacher’s union, which was a vocal critic of his predecessor, Alan Bersin. He concedes that he may not have done enough to keep school administrators from feeling threatened by the warming relationship.

“I think whenever you put something new in place, it’s not going to be perfect during the first year,” he said.

School board members also said it is unfair to criticize the superintendent for hiring people he already trusts.

“I don’t think that Dr. Cohn is trying to make San Diego like Long Beach at all,” said board member Shelia Jackson. “What I think is that he had to transition the culture of thinking in San Diego to move forward, he has to bring in people that he knows understand the way he thinks and understand the way he wants to go. Some of those happened to be from Long Beach, but anyone we bring in in the future will bring people with him.”

Bersin, she pointed out, also recruited heavily from the outside.

There is one notable difference: While Bersin’s choices were heavily and loudly criticized by both members of the school board and the district’s labor unions, Cohn has faced no visible mutiny among the district’s ranks prior to the principals’ unionization.

For example, Lee, a fervent Bersin critic, successfully pushed for an investigation into private donations made to a special fund controlled by the former superintendent. Bersin had used $25,000 of the money for a bonus to a communications consultant he had brought in to work at the district, a move heavily scrutinized by his opponents.

The audit was overseen by Cohn and, though Bersin called it politically motivated, Van Der Laan told The Associated Press last year that it raised “serious questions” over Bersin’s handling of the fund.

“With all the scandals that have erupted in public and private sectors in recent years, we realize great care must be taken that funds are spent wisely and in adherence to state and federal reporting requirements,” Van Der Laan said at the time.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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