by Nic Rivera
CVUSD trustee Cindy Goldberg came under fire for alleged ethical violations from public speakers on Tuesday evening during the agenda item discussing her censure. Goldberg is the paid executive director of Conejo Schools Foundation (CSF). CSF is a local 501(c)(3) that fundraises and donates to support programs for the CVUSD. This organization has close ties to current district leadership, including Board president Connolly, Superintendent Mark McLaughlin and Assistant Superintendent Victor Hayek.
Goldberg’s paid position as director of CSF may present conflicts to her ability to adequately do her job on the board.
Goldberg’s Role at Conejo Schools Foundation
Goldberg’s duties at CSF are unclear as CSF does not freely provide information regarding their operations. Most charities post their bylaws online but CSF does not [correction: CSF bylaws are now posted on their website]. Since beginning her work at CSF in 2007, Goldberg has been seen in attendance at most CVUSD staff and parent council meetings held during school hours throughout the week. Is she paid to do this? Other parent volunteers attend these meetings for free.
The tax forms for Goldberg’s Foundation were not filled out completely so it is unclear who at her organization receives a salary. 501(c)3 organizations are supposed to disclose executive salaries on their tax returns. The Acorn reported during the 2018 campaign cycle that Goldberg is paid about $55K annually for her work.
Conflicts of Interest with Assistant Superintendent Hayek
One of the most obvious conflicts of interest caused by her paid directorship at CSF and her role as an elected school trustee is that Board president Betsy Connolly and CVUSD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, Victor Hayek, sit on the board of trustees for CSF. Therefore, as CVUSD school board members, Connolly and Goldberg participate in deciding Hayek’s salary and, as CSF board members, Hayek and Connolly participate in deciding Goldberg’s salary.
Clearly this is cause for concern and a reason that Goldberg should immediately step down from one of these two conflicting positions she occupies.
Goldberg’s Foundation is a CVUSD Booster Club that Illegally Requires Fees
Although these conflicts of interest are concerning, CSF’s summer school program is the most alarming activity in which Mrs. Goldberg is involved. The primary concern is that CSF charges tuition of $300-$600 per class. No other district does this, since summer school receives State funding.
Goldberg’s Foundation is not only a 501(c)3 charitable organization, but for the past several years is also officially listed as a CVUSD booster club. The agenda item for the most recent re-authorization of CSF booster status can be found on the consent agenda on the December 11, 2018 agenda – Item 9B. Please note the highlighted text of Conejo Schools Foundation being on the booster club list and that booster clubs are prohibited from charging fees for educational activities.
At her first official board meeting as a trustee, Goldberg recused herself when the board voted to reauthorize the booster clubs, with Conejo Schools Foundation topping the list.
Since booster clubs are prohibited by law from charging fees to students, this means that Goldberg’s CSF has been illegally charging required fees for summer school for years. Many parents are reporting that they are outraged by this and have demanded their money back. They could have sent their children to a neighboring district, like Simi Valley, and it would have been free.
In 2010, the CVUSD lost a lawsuit by the ACLU regarding this very matter. Districts must ensure a free education for all students. Losing this lawsuit meant that CVUSD booster clubs could no longer require fees for extra-curricular and educational activities.
The ACLU found that many California public school systems, including CVUSD, were illegally requiring students to pay lab fees, materials fees, PE uniform fees, and fees to participate in extracurricular and educational activities. In 1984, in the case Hartzell v. Connell, the California Supreme Court ruled unequivocally guaranteeing free public schools.
Because the Conejo Schools Foundation is an authorized booster club – receiving all the benefits of this status – it is prohibited from requiring fees for its educational programs. Yet in defiance of the law, CSF charges anyway.
CSF is granted dramatically discounted usage of CVUSD school facilities by the school board for its programs. CVUSD charges large fees to other 501(c)3 organizations, such as the Chinese School program which pays approximately $2700 per Saturday morning to use 35 classrooms. The CSF uses as many as 85 classrooms during a weeks long period in the summer. They use the facilities almost for free, yet charge parents for their children to attend. CSF is receiving well over $1MM in free benefits at taxpayer expense.
A board member should not be personally benefiting from a decision she helped make to allow CSF dramatically discounted usage of school facilities.
Many charitable organizations in our community would love to enjoy these perks.
Goldberg Voted to Provide Free Usage of School Facilities to Her Own Foundation
On March 19, 2019, Goldberg voted to allow her organization free usage of CVUSD buildings. This was most likely a Brown Act violation, however it went unreported. She should have recused herself. In fact, Betsy Connolly, as a CSF board member, should have also recused herself. See item 6A on the March 19, 2019 board agenda.
The primary purpose of any school foundation is to raise money for the schools. Because Goldberg is very ineffective at raising money for CSF (except through this summer school program) her salary comes out of the proceeds of CVUSD summer school tuition fees. The CSF summer school program could not pay its expenses, with money left over to pay Mrs. Goldberg, if it weren’t for the free usage of the district buildings.
In addition, CSF advertises for free in most (if not all) school newsletters in the CVUSD. It seems unethical for a school board member, who financially benefits from the program, to be advertising it in school newsletters.
A few CVUSD employees have reported that their children were given a “scholarship” to attend summer school free of charge without even asking. Why is Mrs. Goldberg giving special treatment to CVUSD employees? She is a board member and should not be passing out financial favors to district employees.
Why isn’t the school board holding Mrs. Goldberg accountable for this corrupt behavior?
Video of Goldberg voting for her own organization to receive free use of CVUSD facilities (3/19/2019 Agenda Item 6A)
Goldberg’s Dual Relationships with District Headquarters Administrators
Goldberg has been the Executive Director of Conejo Schools Foundation (CSF) since 2007. As a result of having this role, district leadership has allowed her to occupy a free office at the CVUSD district headquarters for years (at taxpayer expense). Therefore, she has a co-worker relationship with members of the district office staff, in addition to her role as a school board trustee. It is unclear if after her election, she still occupies her taxpayer funded CVUSD office space.
On the California School Board Association website it states,
“An employee of a school district may not be sworn into office as an elected or appointed member of that school district’s governing board unless and until he or she resigns as an employee.”
Although she may not technically be an employee, for all intents and purposes she acts as a CVUSD administrator in her role for her Foundation.
Goldberg’s ongoing relationship as the leader of CSF has assuredly fostered relationships with district leadership that may effectively compromise her ability to properly govern. The primary responsibility of a trustee is to provide oversight. Her conflicted relationships prevent her from performing her oversight role. This is evidenced by the fact that she never asks any hard questions at board meetings and seems to already know all the answers to softball questions. No need to talk at the board meeting if you already heard it all in the office. This breaks many board protocols.
Goldberg’s years-long relationships with individuals over whom she is supposed to be a watchdog is troubling. She seems far too familiar with staff during board meetings and they seem far too familiar with her. It is difficult once dual relationships are established to go against friends when appropriate. This can create an environment where bad actors are inappropriately given the benefit of the doubt.
The question is whether she will ever be able to assume her correct role as watchdog, or will she always be obligated to be a rubber-stamp no-questions-asked cheerleader?
According to CVUSD board bylaw, Mrs. Goldberg needs to prioritize the parents and community, not just her cronies:
“The Governing Board believes that its primary responsibility is to act in the best interests of every student in the district. The Board also has major commitments to parents/guardians, all members of the community, employees, the state of California, laws pertaining to public education, and established policies of the district. To maximize Board effectiveness and public confidence in district governance, Board members are expected to govern responsibly and hold themselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct (CVUSD Board Bylaw 9005).”
Goldberg Employs CVUSD Teachers
Perhaps the most shocking conflict of interest is that Ms. Goldberg hires CVUSD teachers to work for her summer school program. Therefore, she is their employer AND a school board trustee. This dual relationship might make teachers feel they must support her so she will hire them and in turn, Goldberg is much more likely to side with the union when issues arise in the boardroom.
Her behavior and votes in board meetings attest to the fact she has been unwilling to put parental rights and transparency ahead of union interests.
CVUSD Administrative Regulation (AR) 1230 makes it clear that school connected organizations (i.e. booster clubs) are prohibited from hiring or paying district employees (i.e. teachers for summer school). Therefore, according to the AR, CSF cannot directly pay the teachers that work for Goldberg in the summer. The same regulation also mandates that funds raised by the booster clubs can only be used for the program itself (i.e. not for executive salaries).
If, on the other hand, CSF is donating the money collected for summer school to the district, this would mean the district is technically operating the program and paying the teachers. In this scenario, the fees would not only be illegal, but the relationship CVUSD has with Board member Goldberg is even more troubling. Either way, this matter requires investigation. If the board of education continues to choose to turn a blind eye to potential corruption, the district attorney may need to get involved.
Goldberg Needs to be Held Accountable
CVUSD deserves proper governance. This trustee and the rest of the board majority have some decisions to make. The board should investigate these conflicts of interest and hold Mrs. Goldberg accountable if any unethical and/or potentially illegal behavior is happening.
However, Mrs. Goldberg ran for her elected position on a slate with Mr. Gorback and Mrs. Fitzgerald and therefore it is somewhat unlikely that they will hold her accountable since it would also reflect poorly on them. Because of her dual relationship with Board President Connolly who is on the board of Goldberg’s Foundation and sets the board agenda, it is unlikely that the board will take up the matter in any serious way, let alone hold her accountable if there is any improper conduct.
It’s time for the board to take a stand. They need to either uphold their duties of office or continue the downward spiral into blatant cronyism. It may be up to the public to demand that this matter be investigated. If the board will not take corruption seriously, perhaps some trustees need to be recalled.
Nic Rivera is a resident of Ventura County