It didn’t take long for former trustee Scott Barnett to clash with his old colleagues at San Diego Unified.

Just a month after stepping down from the school board, Barnett told San Diego Unified he’d be representing a charter school in its land sale negotiations with the district. The district objected. Now, Barnett’s out of the deal, but the tensions sparked by the squabble probably won’t die down anytime soon.

On Jan. 13, the school board voted 4-1 to sell the property where Magnolia Science Academy, a charter middle school in San Carlos, currently sits. The district estimated it could make $5.8 million from the sale, City News Service reported.

Facilitating such a deal was an unexpected move from Barnett, who’s been the district’s loudest land sales critic for the past four years.

Barnett doesn’t see it as a contradiction. He said that when Magnolia approached him after he left the school board, he thought he could help strike a deal that could be a win for all parties.

“This doesn’t change my view that selling property for one-time revenues to pay ongoing expenses is poor public policy,” Barnett said.  “But if the district was going to sell, I thought they should sell to Magnolia.”

On Jan. 4, Barnett sent an email to Superintendent Cindy Marten telling her he would represent Magnolia in its ongoing negotiations with the district.

San Diego Unified should sell to Magnolia, he wrote, because it would allow the district to meet its real estate sales goal without having to find a new space for Magnolia’s 370 students. Plus, San Carlos residents could keep a school in their neighborhood – which wouldn’t happen if the property went to a residential developer.

Barnett also upped the ante: If the district were to amend Magnolia’s charter and allow it to add an elementary school, he told Marten, Magnolia could increase its offer from $4 million to $6.2 million.

But to the district, Magnolia’s offer wasn’t the problem – it was the fact that Barnett was doing the talking.

Days after Barnett wrote Marten on Magnolia’s behalf, the district’s general counsel, Andra Donovan, emailed Magnolia, cautioning school leaders to tread lightly when dealing Barnett.

Donovan said that because Barnett potentially has insider knowledge about real estate negotiations with Magnolia, the appearance of impropriety could endanger the deal, either legally or politically. A rejected bidder could sue, or the sale could be overturned.

Even though Barnett is no longer on the school board, a court could determine that he had some involvement in discussions leading up to the deal, Donovan wrote.

The district can’t bar Magnolia from working with Barnett. It can choose not to negotiate with Barnett directly, but beyond that its power is limited.

The district’s ethical guidelines advise a cooling period – meaning employees shouldn’t immediately go work for companies that have dealings with the district – “to mitigate concerns about the appearance of a ‘revolving door’ where public offices are sometimes seen to be used for personal or private gain.” But the policy isn’t legally binding, and doesn’t specify a timeframe. Spokesperson Ursula Kroemer even said the district doesn’t expect all former employees or board members to adhere to the policy.

Still, Donovan seems to believe Barnett’s involvement wouldn’t look good.

“At the very least, an accusation that the transaction is tainted and would likely generate significant public criticism; particularly at this time, given recent scandals in the Sweetwater and San Ysidro Districts,” Donovan wrote.

Barnett said he never attended any deal-making meetings about Magnolia. And by the time Donovan sent the email to Magnolia, he’d already informed the district that he’d changed his mind and wouldn’t be representing the school in the deal.

In Barnett’s view, Donovan overreached and cost him money. He’d planned to establish a long-term relationship doing consulting for Magnolia, he said. But shortly after the school received the email from Donovan, it decided to sever ties with Barnett altogether.

Moving forward, he said he’s worried the situation will damage his reputation and make it more difficult for him to get clients.

“I’m absolutely astonished that the general counsel would reference my name and my consulting activity in the context of the criminal convictions of elected officials in Sweetwater school district.” Barnett said. “I’m just trying to earn a living so I can pay my bills.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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