According to press accounts, Broad frequently consults with Bersin, often taking him to meetings with other "nontraditional" school superintendents, such as L.A.'s Roy Roemer, a former Colorado governor and another Broad favorite; and Paul Vallas, a former budget advisor to Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who named Vallas to run the schools there. Vallas later transferred to a similar post in Philadelphia.
Late last week, in the face of persistent rumors about Broad's financial support for Alan Ziegaus and his election-season public relations campaign on behalf of Bersin's policies, Broad Foundation spokeswoman Melissa Bonney Ratcliff, a former press aide to ex-vice president Al Gore, confirmed that the foundation has so far contributed $20,000 to support the effort. The foundation, she added, has a contract with Ziegaus's firm. "It's my understanding that the district is going to seek money from other sources to supplement that, but that is up to the district. We are responsible for $20,000. I have no other information than that.
"It is no secret that Eli Broad is a big fan of Alan Bersin," Ratcliff continued. "We are working with Alan on a project down in San Diego, yes. We are very interested in getting the message out about how well the reforms launched by Alan Bersin are doing down there. This is not restricted to San Diego. We work with a number of school districts around the country in the same way."
San Diego Unified spokeswoman Peri Lynn Turnbull acknowledged in a telephone interview late last week that Broad was the source of $20,000 for the effort, which she characterized as a way to "improve communications" between the district and parents. The timing of Ziegaus's arrival, she said, was based on the departure of district public relations chief John Spelich, a veteran of Ziegaus's former firm, Ziegaus, Stoorza, and Metzger. Spelich was hired by Bersin last November but left to take a job at the Walt Disney Company in June.
"There was a need to replace John Spelich while we look for a permanent replacement." Turnbull quoted chief administrative officer Terry Smith -- Bersin's right-hand man -- as saying Smith was "not aware" of any other funds being channeled to Ziegaus. "None of the money is coming through the district," she said. "You have to ask Alan Ziegaus about that." Ziegaus did not respond to requests for comment left on his voice-mail system.
San Diego isn't the only place Broad has put up big money to run a public relations campaign on behalf of a school district -- and raised questions of conflict of interest in the process. Broad often partners with local business interests, especially chambers of commerce, composed in part of school-district vendors, who frequently have more than education at heart. According to the Broad website, the foundation is paying for "community leaders in target cities to organize slates of highly effective school board candidates and to mount local voter education campaigns. We are currently piloting this initiative in Fresno, in partnership with the educational foundation of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce."
In Atlanta, Georgia, according to Broad's website, "The Foundation supported the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's efforts to promote effective school-board governance through two local initiatives. First, the Foundation contributed to a nonpartisan public awareness campaign to educate the public about the characteristics of an effective school board and the importance of voting in the November 2001 election.
"Second, the Foundation sponsored training sessions for school-board candidates to familiarize them with the principles of policy governance and the roles and responsibilities of effective school board members. Board training was offered to 14 board candidates, including three challengers who were elected to the school board in November 2001."
Critics of Broad and his reform efforts complain that his frequent political interventions in school-board races are not as "nonpartisan" as he claims. This August, the Los Angeles Times reported that Broad's foundation provided a $100,000 grant to hire Rose & Kindel, an L.A. lobbying firm. The company was retained to "educate voters" about the merits of a $3.3 million school-construction bond issue on the November 5 ballot. But while Rose & Kindel was working on behalf of the school district, at the same time it was also representing a series of developers and consultants who were seeking contracts with the district. That, according to ethics experts interviewed by the paper, represented a serious conflict of interest, a problem compounded by the L.A. district's lack of a lobbyist-disclosure law.
"The bottom line is that it's a conflict of interest for Rose & Kindel to be working for the district and have clients trying to lobby the district," L.A. school-board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes was quoted as saying. The district's ethics officer, Peter Bowen, told the paper he was not aware of the details of the Broad arrangement but added, "People who are acting as a lobbyist for us are not supposed to be lobbying to us."
Whether Ziegaus represents others who have business before the San Diego Unified School District is not known. Like Los Angeles, San Diego has failed to adopt a lobbyist-disclosure ordinance, and Ziegaus did not respond to questions regarding his clientele.
A lobbyist-disclosure statement filed with San Diego County on June 27 of this year by Ziegaus associate Bernie Rhinerson shows that Rhinerson lobbied both the county board of supervisors and county assessor Greg Smith on behalf of KMPG Consulting of Costa Mesa. According to San Diego Unified School District records, KMPG LLP has a contract with the district to conduct the district's annual outside audit. Rhinerson did not return calls regarding the matter.
Also troubling to some, the Times reported, was "Coalition for Kids," a political committee formed by Broad and former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan to lobby the Los Angeles City Council regarding a school-board redistricting map favored by board president and Broad ally Caprice Young. The coalition paid Rose & Kindel $30,000 for its services. Young denied that the arrangement represented a conflict, but Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, voiced a warning. "Obviously, the public perception would be that they would tend to favor people or firms who are representing them privately," he noted of board members such as Young.