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Technical Troubles

[whitespace] Has there been a coverup in Berryessa? If the grand jury ever gets around to investigating, they'll find high-tech hype, bizarre contract arrangements and a good deal of friends helping friends.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

BEFORE ITS investigation was derailed, the grand jury was examining possible illegalities in a confusing and somewhat murky relationship between the Berryessa Union School District and a for-profit corporation called EduLink.

The Berryessa/EduLink relationship began formally in early 1995 when the Berryessa Union School Board approved a four-year contract with a newly formed Los Angeles-based business called Preview Publishing Company (PPC). Under the contract, Berryessa agreed to allow district teachers to use school facilities to develop computer-based school curriculum materials at the direction of PPC, while PPC agreed to pay royalties to the district as well as compensate it for the pay of the teachers.

The electronic curriculum was the brainchild of Ron Rescigno, the superintendent of the Hueneme (pronounced "why-knee-me") School District near Oxnard in Southern California. Berryessa Superintendent Herbert Wadley worked in the Campbell Union Elementary School District in the late '80s while Rescigno served as superintendent of that district. Interestingly, Kay & Stevens Law Offices represented Campbell Union School District while Rescigno was superintendent, and it now represents both the Hueneme and Berryessa school districts.

The district's relationship with Rescigno goes back as far as late 1994, when school board minutes indicate he appeared to make a presentation at a Berryessa board meeting. "The District has entered into a technology agreement with the Hueneme School District," the minutes read. "Some of the results of this agreement have been the recent grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce as well as individual teacher electronic curriculum development."

In 1995, DV Magazine, which monitors and reviews trends in computer multimedia programs, reported that under Rescigno's direction, Hueneme's schools were "filled with 'smart classrooms' that are wired with computers and multimedia hardware and software. [One school's California Assessment Program] scores rose directly in proportion to the increase of multimedia technology used in the classrooms, soaring from the 56th percentile in 1984 to the 94th percentile in 1992."

Berryessa Assistant Superintendent Pat Stelwagon says that like in the Hueneme district, Berryessa teachers decided sometime after the Department of Commerce work to begin developing electronic curriculum for the Berryessa schools. "EduLink saw some of the work the Berryessa teachers were doing, and they asked to purchase it." Stelwagon says that Berryessa teachers developed the electronic curriculum "strictly for Berryessa" after school and on Saturdays, and they were paid by the Berryessa district "at a rate lower than their normal contract rate. I know. I signed the pay vouchers. We invoiced EduLink and EduLink paid the district directly for the teachers' work."

But under questioning, Stelwagon could only recall one piece of the computer technology ever ending up in Berryessa classrooms, an eighth-grade standard on the Civil War that did not include the pictures and technology that was supposed to be part of the EduLink electronic curriculum package. In effect, it appears that EduLink (or PPC) was renting the Berryessa teachers as its software developers.

And Stelwagon's story is contradicted by Dennis Conners, president of the California Teachers Association of Berryessa, who worked on several of the PPC/Hueneme/EduLink projects at Berryessa. Conners says that approximately 25 Berryessa teachers worked on the electronic curriculum projects at one time or another in the hope that the projects would be funded by EduLink. Conners says that Berryessa teachers got no money for this work for the first two years, saying that "we gave our time because we thought that the district would have benefited from this project, with a portion of the sales of the curriculum items [by EduLink] going back to the district and a portion going back to the teachers themselves." Conners says that Berryessa never paid the teachers for their time, but that they eventually got paid indirectly by EduLink in the past two years.

In its first negotiations with Berryessa in 1995, PPC was represented by Michael Rosenfield, a Beverly Hills attorney. When PPC disbanded in late 1995 or early 1996, Rosenfield worked out an identical agreement with Berryessa for a new for-profit corporation called the Hueneme Company. Hueneme later changed its name to EduLink.

Other actions surrounding the Berryessa/EduLink connection raise suspicions as to its legality. In the spring of 1995, at Wadley's request, the Berryessa school board began setting up the nonprofit Berryessa Technology Foundation as a conduit for the funds paid by Hueneme and EduLink for the electronic curriculum development being done by Berryessa teachers. The $40,000 payment from EduLink went directly to the Berryessa Technology Foundation rather than to the district itself. Only one Berryessa school board member served on the board of the Technology Foundation, but Wadley served as its chief executive officer. The Technology Foundation's bylaws contained no provisions that it report any financial information to the Berryessa board of trustees.

In the spring of 1997, without explanation, EduLink corporation formed a California nonprofit foundation of its own, EduLink Foundation, also installing superintendent Wadley as its chief executive officer. In effect, Wadley became an officer on both sides of the Berryessa/EduLink agreement, with the Berryessa school board being cut out of the equation altogether.

In her 1997 complaint to the grand jury, Tonia Izu wrote, "I question whether or not there is a conflict of interest between Herb Wadley as superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District and his position as Chief Executive Officer of Edulink Foundation, as well as his position on the Board of Directors for the Berryessa Technology Foundation. I can only wonder whether or not Herb Wadley owns stock in Preview Publishing Company, Inc./the Hueneme Company/Edulink, Inc. As a board member, I have an additional concern that none of these documents [related to the Berryessa/EduLink agreement] have appeared, nor any discussion related to them has taken place during any open session board meeting."

Representatives of EduLink Inc. itself seemed reluctant to even discuss their own company. When a Metro reporter called and asked for Mike Rosenfeld at EduLink corporate headquarters in Beverly Hills, an unidentified woman answering the phone asked, "How did you get this number?" Rosenfeld did not return the requested call to talk about EduLink's products and research.

And in the winter of 1998, when former Berryessa school board candidate Dale Warner requested from the district "any ... writings that summarize or discuss in any way, any kind of relationship that the district may have with a company named EduLink, its affiliates, its subsidiaries, its predecessors, or its successors," the district refused on the grounds that the records were part of ongoing negotiations, and "the public interest in keeping the records confidential outweighs the public interest in making them public."

Superintendent Herbert Wadley feels that the complaints about EduLink are much ado about nothing. "EduLink paid about $60,000 in all for access to the curriculum that Berryessa teachers were working on," he says, explaining that in effect the company was paying the teachers through the district. "But this is work that the teachers would have been doing anyway. Berryessa has retained copyright ownership of the curriculum; eventually everything is going into our own system."

The Berryessa Technology Foundation was dissolved in the summer of 1998 around the time the grand jury began its investigation, with the district taking over its assets, debts and activities. Wadley says that the Technology Foundation was disbanded for tax purposes, and that the district has now established an enterprise fund within the district structure itself to carry out development and sales of the electronic curriculum. CTAB President Conners says that most of the $40,000 in the Technology Foundation bank account went to pay teachers.

Wadley at first said he knew nothing about the EduLink Foundation. Told that he was the CEO of that foundation, he recalled that the purpose of the foundation would have been to provide a panel of experts to review curriculum for the EduLink Corporation.

"It did come up at a meeting, and I agreed that I would serve on such a foundation if it was ever formed. But to my knowledge, I was not the CEO. They may have filed papers on that, but I don't know anything about it."

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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