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.”


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.”

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, Land Use, News, School Leadership, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    5 comments
    Cindy Conger
    Cindy Conger subscriber

    Scott was all for 'keeping the schools' as we head into the largest baby boom (from multiple 'peaks' in the Echo boom) in decades?  I say, "Failed." After John DeBeck appointed me (a volunteer, no pay, no commissions, even 'using' my 29-yr. 'expertise') to Excess School Properties committee for 10 yrs., though we were from 'opposite political parties', John Held to his word and respected his constituent's future.  Scott allowed two major school properties to be SOLD..at the Lowest Point of the Lowest Real Estate Market in a lifetime!  I don't 'doubt' there were shenanigans in all of it.  Thank God at least one of the District's financial persons would listen and knew how to 'read' even an 'abbreviated' property valuation in Real Estate, which after using (the District's 'leaders'? Who contracted that 'commercial appraiser for Residential Zoning'?') an East Coast Commercial Real Estate Appraiser Co. (Scott's 'friends' from NYC?), that had (or who also represented other East Coast Buyers? Very few of our 'local developers' even Knew the properties were for Sale! I checked!) Severely Underestimated the Mission Beach AND the Barnard School Properties, they (all got my market analysis) Raised the Barnard Property 'minimum closed bid', by almost double.  Still, when $5 million (their estimate of value for a full 9.4 acre site!..that was almost empty, no 'soil remediation', etc.) was 'raised' to a near $9 or 9.5 million minimum, the winning Bid (all Very Close) ended up at $16.5 Million!  Over THREE TIMES what 'the East Coast appraiser company' valued its 'worth.'  Still, Far Below  its real value in 'missing school' in that area (per sq. ft. of Coastal Property for Residential property OR Commercial property in the Coastal Zone...soon to be over 180+ 'condos/apts.' with..."Zero schools to walk to,'' in the most Dense part of the beach areas!) what ANY Developed or Undeveloped Coastal Parcel has sold for in Decades, including during the major part of the recession of '05 to '12, what will this 'District' do? 


    Mission Beach's under 2-acre property, vacant for decades, was also Severely Undervalued!  Within 50-300 feet of both Ocean and Bay, the price per sq. ft. 'finished' was 'selling for' $1200/sf., vacant, for over $300-800/sq ft....multiple properties, 2 of which were both a Block away in different directions! Coastal area schools nearest San Diego will be completely full of students soon, with No Where else to even 'expand.'  ie. the beach areas..you'll never even 'see an affordable 7-acre parcel,' much less with 'extra acreage' for shared parks, where there ARE No Neighborhood Parks, in both very Dense areas!  Scott couldn't even get one 'politician' to see" it..so focused on 'making the district stay in the black?' Right. Scott wouldn't even listen to me (prior VP of of OC Managment Consulting business), when he was 'looking for input' to the 'long term plan' for schools in my area..under Bersin...less so, after he was 'elected.'  In two properties, I helped raise their 'take' more than the 'expected loss' for the District that year.."after" I was gone from ESP and our youngest had graduated. "You're welcome (for giving them an extra $8+ million), SDUSD"...though the politician's would never admit a 'local business woman' volunteered and corrected what they spent far too much money 'paying' a possibly 'conflicted' East Coast 'connection.' Our area's rep. now? Also refuses even volunteer help.  This District needs to be split, decades ago.


    Anyone ready to do that investigation, now that Mario's found just some of the 'inconsistencies' to report on in this District?

    DDunn
    DDunn subscriber

    Francesca

    Haven't figured yet that Cindy Marten doesn't speak in "active" terms. But, she does like to float the promising language - and any real decisions are closed session decisions.


    DDunn

    francesca
    francesca subscriber

    Last evening, as I watched the school board meeting, trying to make sense of what Dr. Marten was saying..."Metrics that go with it"..."reaching our indicators"..."launches a community dialog"..."larger community conversations"..."formative assessment indicators"..."equitable across the system"..."focusing on implementation"..."collaborative conversations led by intentionality".."sense of advocacy"..."creates the whole child"...I wondered.


    I thought about the two years that had passed, since Scott Barnett and Richard Barerra rammed  through the appointment of this Kindergarten teacher, with magic wand and red shoes...and wondered why...Why?


    Why no search, why no interviews, why no community input, why no diversity in applicants...Why?

    Why did Scott Barnett say that Cindy Marten was the best choice he'd made in his life..Why?

    After a year, I sort of figured it out...Charter schools and selling property...Two things Scott was there for...

    Now the district is run by the big three...Ursula, Cheryl and Staci...and Scott is no longer the puppet master.  

    Good for Andra, a smart, fearless lady, for calling Scott out on this..


    "Public offices are used for personal or private gain.."   A no-no..Thanks for that Ursula.  You"re not speaking from personal experience, are you?.

    Sorry, Scott, you may have to get a real job to pay your bills.