Monday, Aug. 6, 2007 | Try to schedule a meeting with Luis Acle, the president of the San Diego Unified School District board, and you have about a one-in-three chance of learning that any date you have in mind is simply unworkable because Acle will be out of town — probably, in fact, out of the country.

In the first half of this year, Acle spent more than two months outside of San Diego, splitting his time between Arizona, where he owns property, and Mexico, where he conducts business and where he has family.

The detachment is consistent with Acle’s view of his position. In the nearly three years since he took the highest elected position in the state’s second largest school district, Acle has repeatedly enforced the idea that he and fellow board members have little to do with the operations of the district. Acle has argued that the board has only three jobs: to decide whether or not to hire or fire a superintendent; to approve that manager’s recommendations and budget; and to craft “broad normative policies.”

His effort has helped leave the board with little or no say in the way the school district spends its $2.2 billion budget. Under his leadership, the board has abdicated its rights to set the agenda for its regular meetings and directly oversee many district operations. His style has represented a marked departure from previous school board leaders, who kept such tight control that they were sometimes accused of shutting out political rivals and dictating the district staff’s work.

Acle is proud of the change.

“I think the function of the board members is to be here for board meetings, to be available for certain kinds of consultations. But we don’t run the district, that’s the reason we have a superintendent,” he said.

Teachers union representatives, who often clash with the board president on ideological grounds, joke that they are happy Acle is so hands-off. He said in a May interview that he takes it as a compliment when people complain about his lack of presence and “recognize I am not running the district.”

It is an ironic development for a man who, for decades, has sought power and influence. He has run for Congress twice. Less than a year after taking over the school district’s board, he ran for San Diego City Council. During that race, his once-loyal campaign staff now says he callously ignored the city’s election laws — accusations that have prompted an ethics investigation and left former supporters and employees bitter and hostile.

In fact, Acle owes his own seat to the much-criticized absences of his predecessor, Ron Ottinger, who chose not to run for re-election in 2004 in the face of a controversy about whether he spent enough time in San Diego to call it his home.

Even before running for local office, Acle amassed a resume of political and entrepreneurial ambitions. A Mexican immigrant and Stanford business school graduate, Acle worked in the Reagan White House before moving to California. In San Diego, he has initiated several corporations and businesses operating in both the U.S. and Mexico, including one abandoned effort to operate an orphanage in the border region. His poor accounting of earnings and expenses from his property holdings and Mexican business efforts landed him in the crosshairs of the Internal Revenue Service, whose agents forced him to pay tens of thousands in back taxes and publicly lambasted his credibility in 2004.

Former supporters of the school board president have echoed the tax collectors’ view.

North County political consultant Jack Orr, who died in June, worked on Acle’s failed City Council campaign and had donated money to it. In an interview in May, Orr said all he could really say about Acle was that he was “goofy.”

“He just doesn’t play it straight. I’m not saying he’s a crook. He doesn’t play by the rules and you have to be goofy not to play by the rules because it’s so easy to do,” Orr said.

One outside observer in the education world, however, praised Acle’s performance as school board president.

“I think he’s very smart, and he has an ability to see a big picture,” said Nick Aguilar, a member of the county Board of Education whose district overlaps Acle’s. “Even though we have different political philosophies, I think he’s done a good job keeping partisan politics out of the school board.”

In a May interview, Acle declined repeatedly to talk about the ethics investigation or the accusations made by the staff from his failed City Council bid.

He said his work as a board president, an elected position, was inherently apolitical and he wouldn’t answer questions about his past campaigns, his life or his personal views unless he entered politics once again by becoming a candidate for office.

He has not yet announced whether he will run for re-election to the school board. His term expires at the end of 2008.

Acle vigorously defends his view that he and his school board colleagues are not politicians, not managers and not representatives of the will of their districts.

“We don’t do what the community wants,” he said. “We bring the values of the community to the table.”

♦♦♦

Despite his leadership post as the president of the school board, Acle has proven to be a detached trustee during his first three years in office, spending much of that time outside San Diego. Parents and school groups in his south-central San Diego district say the board member rarely appears on school campuses, and labor leaders complain that they have struggled to remain in contact with Acle.

In the first half of 2007, the school board president spent a total of 66 days out of town, his calendar shows. In 2006, he was around even less, spending a total of 160 days on the road.

According to the calendars, a great bulk of Acle’s travels has been to Yuma, Ariz., where he owns an apartment building, and to Mexico. The Board of Education Office said Acle was unavailable to comment on the calendars last week because he was out of town. He did respond not to questions submitted via e-mail.

The board president’s decision to spend so much time outside the city is in many ways remarkable, because it was his predecessor’s absence from the district that allowed Acle to run for the position in the first place.

In 2004, Ottinger, the previous trustee from Acle’s District D and the former board president, chose not to run for re-election in the face of controversy about whether he spent enough time in San Diego to call it his primary residence, a requirement to run for the board. Though he owned a downtown condo, Ottinger had also spent much time in Coronado, where his wife and children lived.

Acle denied suggestions that he was an absentee trustee.

“I don’t travel that much,” Acle said. “I’m in San Diego, but I don’t necessarily think that I need to be here (at the office), and I do a fair amount of my work at home.”

Leaders of two school employee groups said Acle’s unusual schedule has made it difficult for them to communicate the concerns of the district’s 17,000 workers to the school board president.

“We had a nice meeting at the start of the year. He and I and [Superintendent Carl Cohn] met at the beginning of the year and talked bout how we wanted to work together this year,” said Camille Zombro, the teachers union president. “And from there on, I was never able to contact or meet with him.”

Jeannie Steeg, the executive director of the school system’s Administrators Association, said Acle has made himself less available than his predecessors on the board.

“I consider it a problem because we share concerns with board members when we meet individually,” Steeg said. “I know his calendar has prevented him from being as available. It comes down to the calendar.”

In late May, Acle’s frequent absence from San Diego became the subject of a legal controversy, when his ex-wife asked the courts to award her the custody of the couple’s youngest daughter. In court documents, Cynthia Tam pointed to Acle’s absence and his travels outside of the country, arguing that he had left the girl in the custody of the couple’s 18-year-old daughter.

The matter is still pending in the courts. Acle said he would not answer questions about his family.

On days that Acle spent in San Diego, the official district calendars suggest that the school board president received only a handful of formal visitors and made plans to attend few events.

In the first six months of 2007, the calendars document a total of 32 appointments for Acle in addition to the regular twice-monthly school board meetings. Four of them were with his doctors and one was with voiceofsandiego.org. Other board members had scheduled more in a single month.

In April, when the San Diego High Alumni Association held a fundraiser at the San Diego High Educational Complex, board members Mitz Lee and John de Beck showed up. Acle, whose district includes the six small schools that make up San Diego High, did not.

“I’ve never seen him around, or heard much about him,” said Dick Jackson, the Alumni Association’s vice president. Board members’ “prime task is not to be out and about at the schools. But normally, you would see them around for certain activities.”

Under state law, trustees are paid $1,500 a month, and their only formal duty is to regularly attend the school board meetings. Acle points out that he has attended every meeting. However, most board members say it is also important for them to be active members of the school community to understand the delicate issues they must weigh in on during their deliberations.

“We are the custodian of the public trust. As the custodian of the public trust, we have to provide accountability,” Lee said. “I visit all of my schools. I go there because it’s good for them to see that the board of trustees values what they’re doing in the school. And I think it’s also good for the community and the taxpayers that their custodians are watching what’s going on.”

Another trustee, Shelia Jackson, Acle’s closest ally on the board, regularly attends more than a dozen meetings and appointments each week. She said the board members should make their presence known, though she said she understands that they also have other responsibilities.

“I think we should try to be visible in the community, but sometimes, circumstances may limit visibility,” she said. “This is a part-time thing. We’re not compensated for this. And most people need to work. If I had a full time job, [the community] probably wouldn’t see me as much.”

♦♦♦

For Acle, his limited appearances outside of board meetings have gone hand-in-hand with his views about the limited scope of the board’s authority. The board president argues the trustees delegate almost all control of the school system to its superintendent, in the same way that corporate boards delegate to their chief executives.

“I think ours should be a part-time job,” Acle said. “We have really three basic responsibilities: One is to formulate or update policy; another is to approve the budget; the other is to hire or fire the superintendent.”

Under Acle’s watch, said board member de Beck, the trustees have relinquished much of their oversight of the school system and have allowed Cohn, the superintendent, to run the district as he wishes.

When the superintendent was hired in 2005, the board approved a contract that included a “no-meddling” clause providing that the board would not micromanage the district. Cohn has invoked that clause repeatedly to fend off board criticism of his staff and the school district’s spending. Earlier this year, when a majority of the school board rejected the district’s $2.2 billion budget because of concerns over its late release — less than a week before the vote — Acle reminded them that the board’s responsibility is to approve, not formulate, the spending plan.

“We approve the superintendent’s plans. We approve the budget allocations. We make policy changes or modifications or new initiatives. We hire or fire the superintendent. That’s our charge,” Acle said in an interview. “And for us to say, ‘I’m the one to decide what color to paint the new school,’ entirely out of the question, that’s not our field.”

Under the board’s bylaws, Acle, as the board president, is supposed to meet with Cohn and Jackson, the vice president, before each school board meeting to formulate the agenda. According to Acle’s calendars, the Budget Planning Committee hasn’t met in months, and the district’s staff now largely oversees the development of the agenda. (Jackson said the committee has found it more useful to converse via e-mail, instead of the formal meeting called for in the bylaws.)

“Frankly, we wouldn’t want him to be more active,” said Zombro, the teachers’ union head.

Acle said such statements don’t offend him.

“Quite to the contrary, I’m complimented by the fact that organizations would recognize that I’m not running the district,” he said. “I don’t think we, as board members, have a management role in the district.”

Outside observers credit the board president for bringing civility to the district after the divisive years during the tenure of Superintendent Alan Bersin, when minority board members said they felt they were shut out by Ottinger and his allies. Aguilar, the county board official, argues that Acle’s mellow style has helped the board shift attention to the issues that most affect the quality of education in San Diego.

“I think, from my standpoint, there certainly isn’t the acrimony and the adversarial environment that existed with Bersin,” Aguilar said. “Even though the San Diego Unified School District continues to have significant challenges, I think the leadership, both at the school board level, where they can focus on issues and not personalities, and the superintendent and upper leadership, is more capable of dealing with the problems. Not necessarily solving them, but dealing with them.”

♦♦♦

Mary Azevedo is a North County political consultant who was a longtime business partner of the well-known Orr, who died in June.

In 2005, at the request of Republican Party officials, Orr ventured south outside his normal sphere of influence to try to salvage the campaign of a Republican, Luis Acle, who had surprisingly shown some promise of winning a normally Democratic, southern San Diego City Council seat.

Azevedo became the treasurer of Acle’s campaign. Orr offered advice and even chipped in a $250 donation.

Asked about their experience, both said they’d never work with Acle again.

Azevedo, like three other paid staffers of Acle’s campaign, told voiceofsandiego.org that she submitted a $500 invoice for her services to the campaign that went unpaid and unreported on his mandatory disclosures. If city officials determine that is a valid campaign debt, the money owed to Azevedo would constitute a violation of the city of San Diego’s election and ethics laws.

When Acle ran for the the City Council post in the election that took place in January 2006, he had 90 days after the election to repay debts incurred by his campaign. Now, city law allows 180 days to pass before all debts must be retired — a measure designed to ensure that elected leaders are not raising money from special interests even as they make important policy decisions. It has been 19 months since the election.

Several former campaign staffers also confirmed that they had been contacted by the San Diego Ethics Commission as part of an investigation the agency was conducting into the allegations.

Republican political consultant T.J. Zane confirmed that Acle had not paid the $1,000 bill Zane sent him for work during the campaign.

Such oversights can be costly. The commission recently fined City Councilman Tony Young $10,000 for not properly handling debts to his campaign committee.

Candidates for elected offices are legally allowed to loan their campaigns as much personal money as they please. Acle loaned his campaign more than $23,000 but Azevedo said that unlike most candidates, Acle, on several occasions, made deposits into the campaign’s account by himself.

Most candidates prefer to let their treasurers perform the task to ensure that the proper recording and disclosure take place.

Azevedo said that Acle, though, made deposits to his campaign as loans using both cash and checks from his company, Occidental Utilities. If the cash was more than $100, both acts would constitute at least technical violations of the city’s and state’s campaign and ethics laws.

First, a candidate cannot deposit more than $100 in cash into a campaign committee’s account because both city and state law prohibits it. Azevedo said she did not recall the specific amount of cash that was deposited.

“The reason why campaign laws require that contributions be made by a written instrument is so that the money is traceable and the public assured that the disclosed source is truthful and accurate,” said Stacey Fulhorst, the executive director of San Diego’s Ethics Commission. “The public is generally leery of a law that allows cash to change hands for campaigns.”

Second, the city’s campaign laws prohibit businesses from donating to campaigns. Although Acle is allowed to donate and loan as much money to his own campaign as he’d like, state law considers his company, Occidental Utilities, to be a separate entity — regardless of whether he runs it as a sole proprietorship.

Fulhorst declined to talk specifically about Acle’s case but she said that if a candidate proved that his or her business was a sole proprietorship, receiving donations from it for a campaign may technically violate the law, but may not be something for which she would pursue a sanction.

“I do not know if I would recommend to the commission that they pursue an enforcement action against someone who made a loan to their own campaign from a business of which they were the sole proprietor,” she said.

Acle did not respond to repeated questions about allegations from his former campaign staffers.

“I don’t know that I’m going to be terribly enthusiastic about disclosing anything that you’re going to disclose to them,” Acle said.

Azevedo quit working as treasurer for Acle in late 2005 as his campaign for City Council was coming to an end.

“When I take on a client, I’m responsible for that account and having all the info for the contributors on file. I don’t like them to be able to deposit or write checks. Not necessarily because they are trying to do something bad but because they’re in a hurry trying to win a campaign and they’ll make mistakes,” Azevedo said.

But Acle, Azevedo said, didn’t share her concerns about the cash and personally depositing contributions.

“He was intent on doing things like that himself,” she said.

♦♦♦

It had been a surprise for many that Acle had even run for City Council. Less than a year earlier, in November 2004, Acle garnered nearly 10,000 more votes than Ben Hueso and won his seat on the school board. He later gathered enough votes among his colleagues on the board to become its president — the ceremonial head who also sets the board’s agenda, presides over meetings and serves as the board’s spokesman.

He appeared comfortable with the new status. But only seven months into Acle’s term, San Diego City Councilman Ralph Inzunza resigned and Acle took out papers to run for the seat. The move upset many. A Latino newspaper, La Prensa, called it a “betrayal” of the school district and said it presented in a particularly stark way the reality that members of the school board often consider their positions mere stepping stones to more prestigious posts in local government.

To the surprise of some, Acle survived the primary election and went on to run head-to-head against Hueso, whom he had beaten in the school race just a year earlier. The scene was set for a strong competition.

But Acle’s campaign dissolved and he ended up receiving only 28 percent of the vote.

His ambition, though, was not a surprise to those who knew him. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Stanford MBA who once worked in President Ronald Reagan’s office, ran for Congress twice.

He has started many businesses. In 2003, he formed an entity called Christian Orphanage.

He said it was meant to provide housing in Mexico for children but it never got off the ground.

“It turned out there were ample facilities for those children in the border region,” Acle said.

George Perez, a representative of Corazon de Vida, an organization that funds orphanages along the border, had a different take on the situation for homeless children in Tijuana. He said thousands of children in the border region had no facility to stay in. Most of the 50 or so orphanages between Ensenada and Tijuana were full, Perez said.

Another company Acle formed was the North American Free Trade Association, a name quite similar to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. But Acle said he organized the entity before that famous accord between Mexico, the United States and Canada was implemented.

He said the company prepared translations of the trade agreements between the U.S. and Mexico “so that American and Mexican entrepreneurs better understood the legal requirements they faced.”

According to court filings, Acle’s NAFTA provided services to foreign companies seeking to do business in Mexico. In June 2004, as Acle’s run for the school board was heating up, a U.S. tax court ruled that Acle owed more than $40,000 in back taxes for income he received from NAFTA, the company Occidental Utilities and various rental properties he owned in San Diego and the Washington, D.C., area.

The IRS had added up deposits he made to various bank accounts and determined what his income was. The agency determined that Acle had underreported a significant amount of income and that he owed $41,000 in taxes and $7,000 in penalties.

Acle argued that his companies had merely served as conduits for his clients to pay off expenses in Mexico and that the deposits into his bank accounts noticed by IRS were not actually his income.

The tax court and IRS did not accept that argument.

“The only evidence to this effect was petitioner’s own self-serving, uncorroborated testimony, which we do not find to be credible” the court said in its ruling. The tax court found that Acle couldn’t produce documents to back up his claims.

Acle, in an interview, said he was crippled by the language barrier.

“The IRS would not accept documentation that doesn’t come in English,” he said.

Ironically, Acle has made mastery of the English language, a hallmark of his professional life. In the 1980s, Acle worked with a group called U.S. English, which advocates for legislation to make English the country’s official language. The group believes all government business — with “common sense exceptions” — should be conducted in English.

In a related way, Acle has been involved with anti-Illegal immigration movements. A group known as the Alliance for Border Enforcement listed its address at his home.

“I am a firm believer that legal immigration is the correct way to proceed,” Acle said. “It’s important that immigrants respect the rules and regulations and the orderly process.”

Acle himself emigrated from Mexico when he was 12 years old. His sister, Christina Robles, said in an e-mail that he learned English rapidly and was eloquent in both Spanish and English.

Acle takes pride in his language skills, boasting that he has credentials to handle official diplomatic conversations between the United States and Spanish-speaking countries.

With all his travels to Mexico, they are skills he employs often.

— Staff writer Nina Petersen-Perlman contributed to this report.

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

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