Over the last few weeks, we’ve learned a lot about the Poway Unified School District’s controversial bond deals. We’ve learned they will saddle future residents with more than $1 billion worth of debt. We know the district squeezed $21 million in extra up-front cash to pay attorney’s fees and other costs associated with the bonds.
But what we haven’t focused on, until now, are the people behind these extraordinary deals.
We decided to put together a quick guide to Poway’s players, so we could share what we know about the individuals responsible for putting together Poway’s bonds.
Here’s more information about the players in our suburban saga.
John Collins, superintendent
• Collins began his career in education at the San Diego Unified School District in 1976. In 1989, he was hired by Poway as an assistant principal and worked in school administration at three different schools during the next seven years. For nine years he was the deputy superintendent in charge of business and learning support services and he became Poway’s superintendent in July 2010, following the retirement of Don Phillips.
• Late last year, local media reported that Collins’s home was in foreclosure after a public notice stated an auction would be held to settle $1.1 million in unpaid obligations.
• In his own words: “We want to be open, transparent and forthright in our responsibility to the district. If only one member of the community comes forward with questions and concerns, it’s one too many.” Yet, Collins has so far refused to provide even basic information about a proposed review of the district’s bond deals. He won’t say who’s doing the review, how much it costs or why the individual or company conducting it was chosen.
Linda Vanderveen, board president
• Vanderveen has served three consecutive four-year terms on Poway Unified’s board and is up for re-election this year.
• In her own words: “Our newly renovated schools are testimony to the community’s commitment to our Building for Success program. People move to [Poway] for the schools. Clearly, we are doing something right.”
• My colleague Will Carless has called and emailed Vanderveen several times seeking comment or an interview. Vanderveen has ignored all of his requests.
Andy Patapow, board vice president
• Patapow has served four consecutive terms on Poway’s board and is up for re-election this year. He was the principal of Poway’s continuation school for 28 years.
• U-T San Diego reported that he accepted more than $300 in meals from Stone & Youngberg, the underwriter of last year’s controversial bond deal.
• Patapow has also ignored repeated calls and emails from Carless requesting comment.
Marc Davis, board clerk
• Davis is the newbie of the group. This is Davis’s first term as a board member; in 2014 he will be up for re-election.
• Davis promoted himself as a businessman and financial adviser during his campaign in 2010. He is the president and founder of Davis & Seiley Wealth Management.
• In his own words: “I am running to share my financial and business expertise to help address the monumental budget problems that we have now and will have in the future. I understand financial markets, contracts, employment rules, pension plans … and tax issues.”
• Davis is one of three board members who has responded to interview requests. In an Aug. 8 email to Carless regarding the extra money Poway squeezed out of its bond deals, he wrote: “[Poway Unified] did not circumvent the will of the people in doing this but followed long standing legal precedent in doing so and the advice of our bond counsel.” Three attorneys not affiliated with the district who were contacted by Carless said Poway’s deals were, in fact, extraordinary, since they pushed the boundaries of state law. The district’s 2011 deal was also deemed illegal by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Todd Gutschow, board member
• Gutschow is in the middle of his second term as a board member; he’ll be up for re-election in 2014. He was appointed to the Citizens’ Oversight Committee for Proposition U.
• In his own words: He told Voice of San Diego in an Aug. 14 interview: “I think most people who take a moment to think about things before they vote would have said, ‘Well, gee. We’re going to be paying more money for a longer period of time. And that’s probably going to mean that’s going to be more expensive.’ I think that general idea is something most people could have and should have recognized. Would they be able to estimate how much? Would they have been able to have that kind of level of detail? No.”
• Of the five board members, Gutschow has been the most willing to communicate with us on this story. He, Collins and Board Member Penny Rantfle met for an interview last month, and Gutschow is the only board member to respond to Carless’s calls. He has, however, ceased communicating with us as of late.
Penny Ranftle, board member
• Ranftle has been on the board the longest; she’s in the middle of her fifth consecutive term, meaning she has spent the past two decades in her position.
• She has virulently defended Poway from criticism over its bond deals. During the Aug. 14 interview, she said the board had acted in good faith and had delivered what voters wanted: more money to construct schools, without raising taxes.
• Rantfle has spoken out against scrutiny of Poway’s bond deals at school board meetings, including one held on Sept. 10, when she said: “It saddens me to see a couple of members of the media that have turned their scrutiny of this district into some sort of a sport. They have taken a single aspect of this massive rebuilding and modernization program and wrapped it into innuendo and inaccurate reporting, without regard to the damage or expense it is causing the district.”
The Consultants: The Dolinka Group: Benjamin Dolinka
• Poway used this group of financial consultants, which specializes in advising school districts about general obligation bonds, for Proposition C.
• According to its LinkedIn profile, the privately held company employs fewer than 50 employees.
• For the past 20 years, Benjamin Dolinka, the group’s president, has served as a financial adviser to Poway. On March 22 last year, a few weeks after receiving the warning letter from the state Attorney General’s Office, Collins submitted a letter of recommendation for the Dolinka Group praising Dolinka:
“[W]orking with Benjamin Dolinka and the finance team, we have been able to minimize our risks while maximizing the benefits,” he wrote.
• According to the group’s website, Dolinka “focuses on creating new financial and demographic services, identifying potential public-public and private-public partnerships.”
The Consultants: California Financial Services: Michael Ogburn
• This small financial planning firm has advised school districts and local governments for 26 years, according to its website.
• Its founder Michael Ogburn specializes in school district finance in Southern California, and has worked with at least two local districts: Escondido Union and Poway.
The Lawyers: Bowie, Arneson, Wiles & Giannone
• Poway used this Newport Beach law firm for advice on its bond deals.
• According to its website, the firm employs 10 attorneys and has been around for about 40 years and provides public agencies, like school districts, with legal services involving planning, financing and construction of school facilities.
• The firm was the recipient of a letter from state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’s office last year warning that the deal it was helping Poway Unified put together was illegal.
Sandy Coronilla is a freelance journalist and contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.519.6069.