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When Shelia Jackson made the motion last October, another school board member was so surprised that she exclaimed out loud.
“Oh my gosh,” Katherine Nakamura said.
It was a mundane bit of business called the consent agenda: a long list of routine items bundled together to be passed without discussion to save time. Jackson was known for scrutinizing even small things, pulling them off the consent agenda to ask more questions or vote against them.
This time she called for the whole slate to be approved without any problem.
“Next meeting, though, I’ll be back on the job!” Jackson joked.
One of the things on the consent agenda that Jackson and the rest of the school board agreed to that night: extending the private contract that includes a job for her daughter.
San Diego Unified hired URS Corp. for $9 million two and a half years ago to help roll out its $2.1 billion school construction and renovation bond. It was one of three companies chosen to temporarily provide extra staff to the school district, with a long list of duties from scheduling construction projects to preparing reports for the school board.
Kendra Jackson works for URS. Contract exhibits list her as a document controls specialist billing $72 an hour.
URS has a long history with San Diego Unified. It has worked with the district for more than a decade, helping with the last school construction bond as well. Its employees work closely with San Diego Unified: Kendra Jackson has a school district email address, a desk in its offices and reports to a district employee, Don Webb, who oversees the construction management department.
In a July 2010 interview, Shelia Jackson said that her daughter Kendra had applied for the job without her knowledge or help and started working with URS after the school board had already approved the company’s original contract.
“I would abstain if a vote came up,” Shelia Jackson said.
But in that October vote, Jackson and the rest of the school board voted to approve the second extension for the URS contract, which included documents that listed Kendra Jackson by name. Extending the contract increased its fee by $4.5 million.
Shelia Jackson didn’t respond to phone and email messages asking for comment on this story. Kendra Jackson referred questions to URS, which did not answer questions by deadline.
Kendra Jackson’s Facebook page says she went to Point Loma Nazarene University, where she studied history, political science and French. She is 23 years old, according to her Myspace page.
She began working with San Diego Unified full-time as a URS employee in February 2010. As a document controls specialist, Kendra Jackson maintains files about construction projects, distributes plans, and tracks and routes reports about construction.
California law prohibits public officials from entering into contracts that could impact them financially. They must also stay out of decisions that could profit their spouse or dependent children.
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That usually doesn’t include children who have grown up and become financially independent. However, Shelia Jackson may have a financial stake in what her grown daughter earns because she registered a consulting business and sometimes stays at the Kearny Mesa apartment where her daughter lives.
Last month, a voiceofsandiego.org story raised questions about whether Shelia Jackson still resides in the district she was elected to represent. When confronted, Jackson said financial problems had forced her to split time between her daughter’s Kearny Mesa apartment and longtime educator Gwendolyn Kirkland’s Valencia Park home.
Both of the people that Shelia Jackson relied on have gotten work in San Diego Unified. And in both cases Jackson voted on giving them work or continuing to do so.
While Jackson says she was living for free with Kirkland, she voted to approve her as an interim principal last summer. Jackson didn’t disclose the free rent on her financial disclosure forms, something that public officials are generally supposed to do.
Michael Houston, an Orange County attorney versed in conflict-of-interest cases, said the key question in deciding if Jackson ran afoul of the law by voting on the URS contract is whether the school board member is getting economic benefits from her daughter, such as free space to run her consulting business.
Another expert argued voting on the contract was a bad idea even if it was legal.
“Imagine my kid, who I love dearly, is involved in this contract I’m voting to give somebody,” said Robert Fellmeth, a professor in public interest law at the University of San Diego. “You probably should recuse yourself as a matter of ethics.”
The state attorney general wrestled with a similar situation in the past. It considered whether a redevelopment official who shared an apartment with her son should vote on giving a loan to his company. It found it wouldn’t be a conflict of interest under state law — but cautioned against it anyway.
“It is difficult to imagine that the agency member has no private or personal interest in whether her son’s business transactions are successful or not,” the attorney general wrote. “At the very least, an appearance of impropriety or conflict would arise.”
Update: The original version of this story said Kendra Jackson earns $72 an hour. We’ve updated the wording to say the position bills at that amount, based on comments from our readers. URS still hasn’t answered questions on specifics.
Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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