Saturday, October 28, 2006

Piedad Robertson Resigns from the ECS

Over a year ago, on September 18, 2005, in our blog article Rats Always Flee a Sinking Ship, we quoted Santa Monica College Board of Trustee Margaret Quinones, who stated:

We wish Dr. Robertson well and we know that she will help shape national education policy as brilliantly as she shaped our college.

Quinones was referring to Piedad Robertson's departure from her presidency of Santa Monica College and her newly appointed position as president to the influential Education Commission of the States (ECS) in Denver, Colorado.

However, three times was not the charm for Piedad Robertson. About nineteen months after assuming power of the ECS, Robertson has stepped down (as of September 16, 2006), allegedly leaving the organization on shaky financial grounds, from which many in the field of education claim that the ECS will be unable to recover. Her resignation followed a mass exodus of other high officials within the organization. Roderick Chu, former chancellor emeritus of the Ohio Board of Regents, will become the organization’s interim president. The Ohio Ethics Commission declined Chu's position as head of the virtual online school he created and plugged among state leaders, citing possible violation of ethics laws and featherbedding of his own educational nest.

Piedad Robertson is a woman who does not stay in one place long. Starting with her humble beginnings in her native Cuba, Robertson allegedly got her first taste in politics as a comrade to Fidel Castro. She later became his adversary during the Cuban Revolution, relocating to the United States. Setting up shop in Florida, she became president of Miami Dade Community College, and then jumped ship to Bunker Hill Community College. It was during her stint at Miami Dade that she met Katharine Muller, who she eventually imported to take control of her pet project, Santa Monica College's Academy of Entertainment and Technology (AET). To read more about Muller's involvement with Robertson at the ECS, read our blog article,
The Sims Hot Date: Katharine Muller's Romantic Getaway. Here's a thumbnail screenshot from that article:

EA ECS Paraody Photo

From left to right: Katharine Muller, Piedad Robertson, EA 3d model, Mike Huckabee, and Winniphred Stone.

From Florida, Robertson moved upstream to Massachusetts, becoming the first (and only) secretary of education thanks to then governor William Weld. Here, she set up shop with Winniphred Stone, who she also later imported to Santa Monica College to oversee the distance education program with eCollege. But a vote of no confidence put her out in the street four years later until she was able to convince Santa Monica College to hire her as its president.

A ten-year reign as "education czar" according to one SMC professor, led to ongoing labor strife, lawsuits, college-wide criticism, dwindling enrollment numbers, and yet another vote of no confidence. But Robertson schmoozed with the governor's high cabinet, not only securing various positions for herself, but those close to her, such as helping both Margaret Quinones and Benita Haley, both of SMC, to Governor Schwarzenegger's prestigious Board of Governors.

These votes of no confidence did not stop Robertson from assuming yet another presidency, this time at the ECS. Obviously, those in charge of the ECS either did not take these two votes of no confidence seriously or they had hidden agendas in their hiring of Robertson. Those loyal at SMC followed her, including Winniphred Stone. Robertson kept her SMC friends close, working with William Shade, Joan Abrahamson, and Dale Franzen. Both Franzen and Abrahamson, consultants at SMC for Robertson's Madison Project and AET, joined her on Governor Mike Huckabee's Arts Commission.

While Robertson was at the ECS, the organization spent a lot of time reading this blog. Obviously not happy with our coverage, they went on a mission to delete William Shade's role at the ECS as Chief of Staff. However, we've been able to document the fact that Shade worked for both SMC, securing high school dual enrollment letters of intent for AET and was a member of the ECS. Here's a photo of Frazen (left) with Shade (right) in 2005 at Huckabee's first meeting of his Arts in Education Commission:

Dale Frazen and William Shade at Huckabee's Arts in Education

Shade is also listed on the ECS's Form 990 income tax filings for 2004 through 2005. As president of SMC, Robertson allegedly earned over $200,000 a year. At the ECS, she took home $175,687 plus $13,474 in her expense account. Kathy Christie, the Vice President of Information Management & ECS Clearinghouse, who turned in a resignation letter on or about May 4, 2006, claiming that the ECS was in dire financial "jeopardy," earned over $106,000 a year, right above William Shade, who pocketed $86,667. Winniphred Stone only allegedly earned $8330, questioning why she abandoned her high-priced administrative salary at SMC to work for the third time with Robertson. If Stone wasn't reeling in the big bucks, what other benefits did she in fact receive by shifting gears as Vice-President of Planning and Development for the ECS? Here's a screenshot of everyone's compensation from the ECS's Form 990:

ECS Form 990 Tax Filing Compensation for 2004-2005

In our blog article,
Our Education: Where Does All The Money Go?, we quoted Kathy Christie as stating: "Our cash-flow position is dire, which immediately impacts the ability of the organization to sustain itself." Was the ECS in as dire a financial state as Christie claims? Here's the ECS's 2004-2005 form 990 available in Adobe PDF for you to decide for yourself. But Christie was not the only one in higher education to question the ECS's financial stability. An article entitled Can ECS Make It? from the "This Week in Education" blog, dated September 15, 2006, states the following:

It's no secret that the Education Commission of the States has been going through some rough times lately. Most notably the resignations of many senior policy and accounting analysts this past May and the poor fiscal health that former President Piedad F. Robertson hasn't been able overcome. With philanthropic interests moving away from broad issue groups and focusing more on specific issue groups it is not clear that ECS's financial problems will be able to be resolved soon.

When Governor Kathleen Sebelius took over as chair in July she admitted that although the three main sources of revenue (state dues, grants and contracts) were declining, a recent audit said the finances were "in pretty good shape." Progress continues this week with the announcement of Interim President Roderick Chu and the development of a survey in an effort to have a more open, transparent relationship with ECS's stakeholders and supporters.

Is the ECS really making progess in the right direction, or will this lead nowhere?

In Sebelius' press release about her
survey, she is "inviting all ECS constituents to participate in an online survey aimed at rethinking and reinvigorating the organization and its mission." Her alleged aim is for "a very open, transparent process." Does this mean that the ECS's former financial accounting wasn't as transparent as it should have been? The ECS 2005 Annual Report describes its mass exodus of key employees as a "comprehensive staff restructuring" to aid in the "new federalism." The changes include "streamlined reporting of financial reports, budgets and program plans to our commissioners." Why were the financial reports not "streamlined" before? How convoluted were they?
Under "liabilities and net assets," the ECS 2005 Annual Report shows $122,195 in 2005 and $175,081 in 2004 under the category "vacation." The burning question is precisely who took a vacation where? And what about the very nebulous "other" category, which shows expenditures of $287,323 in 2005 and $226,430 in 2004? Why are these amounts not itemized? Under total liabilities, net assets, unrestricted, the following amounts are shown: $1,067,276 for 2005 and $879,819 for 2004.

How "brilliantly" did Robertson shape the ECS's financial picture as Quinones' prophesized? From 2004 to 2005, the ECS's "operating loss" plummeted from $191,476 to $304,138, "interest expense" from $41,636 to $52,913 and "investment expense" from $24,000 to $24,205. But Robertson was able to reel in some new grants in 2005 for the ECS from her former buddies, including $20,000 from the Riordan Foundation and $778,010 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In an
SMC press release, dated September 22, 1999, Robertson was "appointed to the Gates Millennium Scholars Program Advisory Council, which will oversee the $1 billion scholarship endowment just announced by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It is the largest such fund ever established for higher education." Robertson was only one of six members. Somehow, there seems to be a conflict of interest brewing in the background.

On or about December 2003, Robertson was named as special advisor to Richard Riordan, who became California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's new secretary of education. SMC's Education Standard quotes Riordan as stating the following:

As I embark on this new position, I feel fortunate to have Dr. Robertson on my team. She shares my priority in putting California first. I am very lucky to have her expertise on educational matters.

Piedad Robertson with Richard RiordanIf Riordan and Robertson were in fact "putting California first" as they heralded in 2003, then why did Riordan, a mere two years later, transfer $20,000 out of California to Robertson's ECS in Colorado? Was Riordan putting "California first" or "Piedad Robertson first"? Recall that Riordan helped Robertson along financially by donating money to Margaret Quinones 2004 re-election campaign as SMC Board of Trustee. Even more disturbing is the Riordan Foundation form 990 for 2004, in which the accounting firm J. Arthur Greenfield & Co. LLP stated on May 9, 2005 that the tax filing "does not include all disclosures required for a fair presentation of the financial position and results of operations of the Riordan Foundation in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles." Curiously, the Riordan Foundation doesn't seem to have filed a form 990 for the year 2005 to the best of my knowledge.

While at Santa Monica College, Robertson was accused of maintaining a personal Slush Fund known as the "President's Public Relations Account" in which she was illegally allotted five percent of the student budget. A document entitled "Administrative Misconduct" that was sent to the California State Accreditation Team states the following:

Dr. Piedad Robertson blackmailed and extorted the student government to secure her Public Relations Account. This has been documented and has occurred over the past two years with different student representatives on student government. The specific threats she made include stopping the collection of the Associated Students membership fee (effectively bankrupting student government) and forcing all student business officially legislated, resolved, or passed by student government to also be passed by the Board of Trustees before the college would cut a check from the students' bank account. These threats were made when the possibility of discontinuing the Presidents' Public Relations Account was brought before Dr. Robertson.

Not only was a lawsuit on behalf of the Associated Students of Santa Monica College filed against Robertson, but the Accreditation Commission reported in 2004 that "funds were being hidden" and that there was "little trust in the administration" as well as a "distrust of financial information" leading to "serious problems." Whether all these complaints seem true or not, one thing is apparent, that no matter where Piedad Robertson sets up shop, she leaves a legacy of negative criticism pertaining to her leadership and handling of public funds. It will be interesting what Robertson now has in the works after her departure from the ECS and who will continue to lurk in her shadows.

-- Des Manttari,
Phoenix Genesis

(c) 2006: Phoenix Genesis/MBS LP

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