My inbox has been active these past few days, ever since a Sacramento TV station aired a report investigating the compensation and spending habits of Scott Plotkin, the Executive Director of the California School Boards Association (CSBA). On Friday evening, CSBA announced that Mr. Plotkin would retire Sept. 1; until then he will be on paid leave, using up accrued sick time.
Details are scarce, and the CSBA Board is being tight-lipped because this is, ultimately, a personnel matter. But Mr. Plotkin’s compensation — reported as being in the area of $500,000 for 2007 and 2008 — has raised eyebrows, as has his use of corporate credit cards to withdraw significant sums of cash at Sacramento-area casinos. (I think I am safe in saying that it is almost never good news when you read the words “cash” and “casinos” in conjunction with “corporate credit cards.”)
What makes this story bigger than your garden-variety “executive retires under a cloud” news is that CSBA (a private non-profit organization) is funded through dues paid by member school districts — districts that are of course funded with taxpayer money. And in a time when schools are cutting back to the bone, and suing the state of California for equitable school funding, this news is spectacularly ill-timed.
It’s horribly sad to watch a long, illustrious career in education policy come to such an abrupt end, and though I only met Mr. Plotkin once or twice I am sure this is not how he envisioned his retirement. Still, I think it was right for the CSBA Board to act quickly and decisively, because the credibility of the organization is at stake.
School districts pay tens of thousands of dollars to CSBA annually in dues and other fees, and taxpayers have a right to know whether their money is being well spent. In my 15-plus months representing SFUSD at the CSBA Delegate Assembly, I have never had cause to doubt that the organization was accurately and aggressively representing the concerns of the staff and students of San Francisco. But in the past few days, constituents have asked me what, specifically, we’ve gotten for our investment in CSBA, so here are just a few thoughts:
- California has very few urban school districts, even though those urban districts enroll most of the state’s students. The overwhelming majority of delegates to the Delegate Assembly represent rural or suburban districts, and the policies of the organization skew towards those concerns. SFUSD’s active participation in CSBA over the years has clearly advanced the concerns of urban districts, which tend to have more low-income students, more students of color and more special education students than suburban and rural districts.
- CSBA has a seat at the inner circle that makes education policy decisions in California. If SFUSD were to decide not to participate in CSBA, we would lose access to that seat at the table. This is hugely important because of our unique concerns as an urban district.
- CSBA gives school board members from different districts a forum to connect with and learn from one another. I have learned a great deal from participating in CSBA workshops and seminars, and I know I am a better Board member as a result. I’ve connected with Board members across California and particularly in the Bay Area, and we’ve shared stories and strategies that have been mutually beneficial.
Last but certainly not least, CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance has won important legal victories that have increased funding for all districts in California. The negotiated settlement on Behavioral Intervention Plans last year is just the most recent example; that single settlement brought more funding into SFUSD than we have spent in CSBA and Legal Alliance dues in decades.
The CSBA Board has some work to do now, to rebuild trust among the dues-paying school districts and the tax-paying public. I have no doubt that the organization is more necessary and more useful than ever, but its practices and spending must be above reproach if we are to continue to advance the cause of adequate funding and sensible oversight for California’s school districts.