The Temecula Creek Inn--with its views of miles of verdant, vine-covered hills, a golf course, sumptuous spa treatments and nearby wine tastings--is a splendid spot for a decadent weekend getaway. In late 2007, about a month after beginning his post as Capistrano Unified School District's newest superintendent, A. Woodrow Carter accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at the Inn for the "California Superintendent's Health and Wellness Institute." Carter didn't give many details about the retreat in his weekly memo to the board and no one asked much about it.
But documents and records obtained by the Weekly reveal that one of the "sponsors" that paid for Carter's retreat later received a lucrative architectural contract with CUSD.
The retreat--which Carter should have filed as a gift in state public disclosure forms--happened months before he became mired in controversy over a $58,000 pay raise, a $400,000 severance package and allegations that he negotiated a teachers'-union contract without board approval. The board put the superintendent on paid administrative leave in early January.
Reached at his home in Dana Point, Carter declined to comment on any matter related to CUSD. "It's an ongoing issue," he said. "I've said before there'll be a time and place to make statements, but not before we have some kind of action."
"Susan," a district parent who wishes to remain anonymous, became suspicious of a second similar retreat after noticing Carter's mid-week absence last July and asking a board member where he was. "I was told that he was at a health and wellness institute in Napa," she says. "I said, 'Why is he there? They said, 'I don't know.' It didn't sound like a legitimate trip," she says. "What was he learning? Who was paying for it?"
After making public-records requests with the district, the results of which she has provided to the Weekly, she discovered that the event--the 2nd Annual School Administrators Health and Wellness Institute--was hosted by Global Business Education, a one-man consulting firm run out of the home of Tom Davis, a former science teacher, in San Diego, and the same company that hosted the first getaway in Temecula in 2007. His company, which isn't registered with the state or the county of San Diego and has no website, specializes in "on-line virtual school development," according to a LinkedIn profile. There is no mention of health- or wellness-related work or consulting.
The cost to the district to send Carter away to the first institute in Temecula in 2007 was $200. The rest of that weekend--including two nights at the inn at $209 per room, all meals, wine tastings, private spa and facial treatments and golf games--would be paid for by Institute sponsors. One of those sponsors was an architectural firm called WLC Architects, which holds dozens of school construction contracts around the state, and which donated $181,000 to public school construction bond measure campaigns last year.
According to public records Susan provided to the Weekly, including the conference agenda, Carter and the dozen or so other superintendents from around the state (no others from Orange County) who attended the retreat were encouraged to take a "Relaxation Break" on Saturday, Oct. 27 by indulging in scheduled, in-room spa and facial treatments for two hours before the evening's "Networking and Wine Tasting" session, all on the dime of WLC and the handful of other institute sponsors. Several months later, the district awarded WLC Architects a lucrative contract--at Carter's urging.
About a week and half after the first wine-country excursion in 2007, Carter stated in his Nov. 9, 2007 memo to the board that he planned to search for and hire a new master architect to handle district projects and a huge school facilities report (known as the Facilities Master Plan), which had been initiated by interim superintendent Chuck McCully in 2006. (McCully held the post for a few months after now-indicted former superintendent James Fleming left in 2006).
The only problem with Carter's idea was that three architectural firms for these projects had already been vetted and hired by the district in 2006, after McCully had put an end to the district's long relationship with a single firm and divided it into three regions. Susan, who was on a school facilities subcommittee in her area, says she found the decision to replace the three firms with a new firm unusual. "We'd been holding committee meetings for months with these firms and making progress by assessing what each school needed," she says. "It made no sense to suddenly get rid of them."
In his notes to the board, Carter stated on Nov. 9, 2007 that his interest in looking for a new architect was to get "new eyeballs on this procedure, someone we hire without any luggage in the past."
By early February 2008, in one of his memos to the trustees, Carter said that he had met with five architectural firms and had narrowed down the choices to one firm for the Master Plan services contract. He announced his first choice, WLC Architects, at the Feb. 25 board meeting and recommended that the board approve a draft contract with the company, which the board did in a 6-0 vote.
On April 21, 2008 the board voted 6-1 (with Marlene Draper dissenting) to approve the contract with WLC, which would begin with an initial contract of close to $1 million for a Facilities Master Plan proposal. According to the board minutes, just before this vote was taken, Carter also recommended that Don Hensley, of WLC, "our Master Architect", be appointed as the architect for the design of three theaters at three different high schools (with contracts between $2-3 million for each school). The board checked with legal counsel who said it was okay to appoint WLC in this case without going out for bids. WLC won both the Master Plan and the theater contracts in one vote.
Carter never disclosed--in his memos to the board or in the public meeting agenda item--whether or not he had met representatives of WLC in Temecula, or that they had helped pay for his weekend getaway. Board president Ellen Addonizio says she was never informed that WLC Architects was a sponsor of the retreats. "This information was provided to the board within the last two months," she said in an e-mail.
The second institute, held at the Silverado Resort in Napa in July 2008, was focused on "Taking Care of YOU!" according to the invitation e-mail sent to Carter's office, and cost the district $1,150 in conference fees, rental car and parking for Carter. Again, sponsors paid for wine tastings, stress lectures, facials and for a "Jaff's Estate Reception, Dinner and Star Gazing" on July 23, 2008.
According to the records Susan obtained, Carter also double-dipped for meal costs on the Napa trip. He billed the district for $90 in meal costs even though WLC and the other sponsors had already footed the bill for all meals. Carter had no speaking or panel session role, so both trips would have been considered gifts, according to state ethics laws, and would have required public disclosure because he received more than $50 in gifts over the weekend. In his disclosure form for 2007, Carter reported no gifts. The forms for 2008, which would include the Napa trip, have not yet been filed.
According to district records, Carter double-dipped on several other occasions between late 2007 and 2008, and received reimbursements for meals and per diem that were covered in the conferences he was attending.
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In late 2008, Leadership Associates, the search firm that recruited Carter for CUSD, invited Carter to a Superintendent's luncheon in October 2008. He had the option of driving to the Airport Marriott in Ontario on Oct. 8 for the meeting or flying to Oakland on Oct. 16. Carter opted to go to the Oakland meeting and stayed through the weekend so that he could attend a personal meeting on Friday regarding an old lawsuit he's involved in from his administrator days in Oakland. Leadership Associates reimbursed him $249 for his airfare. Because public disclosure reports have not yet been filed, it remains to be seen if Carter will report the airfare as a gift.
On Nov. 13, 2008 the superintendent's assistant, Heather Wheeler, sent an e-mail to the board and explained that, "due to the current budget crisis, Supt. Carter has directed me to cancel all reservations for the CSBA conference." The California State Board Association conference would have cost $195 per board member. But Carter himself continued to travel: Just a month earlier, the district had reimbursed him $695 for a superintendent's conference in Northern California.
"It's a perfect picture of how out-of-control this is," Susan says. "You've got this guy with a huge salary going to Napa Valley on wine tastings while at the same time he's telling you he doesn't know how he's going to fund classrooms."
Editorial fellow Spencer Kornhaber contributed to this report.