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Zendejas: Tough new boss cracks down on spenders

Public Eye

Ouch! to Lunch

That loud snapping sound is East Side Union High School District's new superintendent, Dr. Esperanza Zendejas, cracking the whip on 34 school administrators and elected school board trustees who have been running around with school district credit cards. Apparently, there's been inadequate oversight, and cardholders haven't been turning in their paperwork, as district policy and federal tax law require. In other words, anyone with a credit card could pretty much charge whatever they want, and the district paid the bills. "We needed to tighten the procedures," Zendejas understates. The no-nonsense new boss, a published author who previously ran school districts in tough places like Brownsville, Texas, and Indianapolis, reduced everyone's spending limit to a dollar until she could implement some temporary procedures. ... ESUHD Board President J. Manuel Herrera admits he's two or three years behind in turning his receipts but swears he hasn't spent all that much and that he's reconciling his accounts at the superintendent's request. Patricia Martinez-Roach, who did turn in receipts, junketed to Costa Rica to recruit teachers along with ex-Superintendent Joe Coto. Coto says the trip was legit. "We wound up hiring some teachers there," he educates us. ... While Martinez-Roach racked up about $10,000 in charges in three years, including a couple of $700 stays at San Francisco hotels, former school board President Craig Mann got a little more off-the-hook with his district card. His bills for the period we examined, March 2000 until December 2002, came to more than $20 grand. He checked into the four-star Anaheim Hilton for the 2001 California Democratic Party Convention and charged his $358.25 stay to the district because he was there "to affect educational policy [lobby] for my district" and notes that he "didn't charge airfare or meals to the school district." The school board member, now chief of staff for San Jose City Councilmember Terry Gregory, also traveled to Washington, D.C., for a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation event. ... Former Supe Coto believes Mann's use of the card for political events was "not appropriate." Coto, who's running for state Assembly now and is not exactly a Mann fan-club member, says the cards were supposed to be used only for "educational conferences." Mann tells us he was discussing educational benchmarking in Indian Shores, Fla., when he whipped out his district card to treat 18 people he says were ESUHSD employees to dinner at Salt Rock Grill. That seaside institution boasts of "world-famous grouper chowder" and serves a "monster 1 1/4-pound Caribbean" fire-roasted lobster tail with drawn butter for $35.95. An official from the district's business office, whom Eye shall not name, said the district's limit for buying meals is $20 a head and that the district has been unsuccessfully trying to collect the remainder from Mann. In his defense, Mann points out that he made his guests pay for their own booze; he only fed them. ... Mann also used his school card to purchase a $431.92 Palm Pilot and a $2,228.12 Dell computer for his home. "That's allowed," he explained. However, a 1996 board-approved policy memo furnished by the ESUSH business office specifically forbids equipment purchases by credit card. President Herrera says the business office was supposed to be enforcing the procedures. The assistant superintendent who runs that office says the board is "self governing" and that she "doesn't tell the board what to do." ... Zendejas is tightening up on the loose procedures that evolved under her predecessor and were scrutinized in a recent Harvey Rose audit. She explains that principals sometimes need to buy supplies that shouldn't have to go through a cumbersome purchase order procedure, and officials can save money by using credit cards to buy low-cost airfares on the Internet. The new policy will let cardholders spend money on travel, conferences and meals, provided spenders turn in supporting documentation. Purchases of more than $500 and entertainment are specifically excluded. Principals can spend up to $3,000 a month, and the superintendent and trustees can go as high as $5,000. And anyone who forgets to turn in their receipts or breaks the rules can kiss their card goodbye. Snap!

One, Two, Three City Halls?

Eye has learned that San Jose city government is planning to transfer as many as 300 city employees and their offices to the old Martin Luther King Jr. Library building on San Carlos Street, next to the convention center. That factoid lands on our desk even as cement and rebar rises at the new Civic Center site at Fourth and Santa Clara streets and the city prepares to spend $35 million to spiff up the present City Hall. ... Hey, wasn't the city going to get rid of that old building to help pay for the new one? That's what city leaders represented seven years ago when they asked city voters to green-light the scheme to build the new third-of-a-billion-dollar architectural masterpiece, saying it would save the public a bunch of money.) ... In April, however, a consultant report revealed that "it has been determined it will be necessary to retain the existing City Hall." City folks say that the 1958 building doesn't meet city building codes and mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, page 6 of the 154-page study notes, "Water coolers in City Hall need to be upgraded and reinstalled to meet ADA height requirements." Moreover, it's seismically shaky, lacks sprinklers, isn't Internet-friendly, has unsightly patches of nonmatching vinyl floor tiles--and the darned air conditioning system needs to be completely replaced. Does this mean that San Jose will have three City Halls? Negatory, according to the city manager's office. Plans to use the old MLK building to house city offices are scheduled on a temporary basis. Once the new civic plaza is completed and the old City Hall is freshened up, these same employees will move into one of the other sites. In the end, San Jose will have only two City Halls, not three. ... The surprise is that for once, the city will actually save money by doing something. The city manager's office expects that as much as $900 grand will be saved in the first year by allowing leases to expire--like the one for Parks and Rec over at 4 N. Second St. This near-million in annual cost savings is expected even after accounting for "moving expenses and office refurbishing costs." It does not, however, factor in the money the city spent on a new library to free up the old one for more municipal government offices.

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From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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