How did a routine story on the education beat mushroom into a major investigation that would win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting?
Here are the opening remarks for a presentation I did on Sept. 26 with Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci for the 2015 Excellence in Journalism Conference hosted by the Orange County Press Club and Chapman University.
When I came to the Torrance Daily Breeze in 2010, I’d just spent six years in quaint Santa Barbara.
Centinela sits in the gritty South Bay suburbs of Los Angeles County — Hawthorne and Lawndale to be exact.
By statute, in Santa Barbara there are no billboards. By contrast, when you stand in the parking lot of Centinela’s school district headquarters, a gargantuan Best Buy billboard towers over the property, aimed at the busy freeway above.
For some reason, this made an impression on me. I can remember looking up at that monstrosity after attending my first school board meeting and thinking, “I’m not in Santa Beautiful anymore.”
To me, the billboard is a symbol of something about Centinela that I think enabled corruption there to flourish: Its invisibility. What is the Centinela Valley School District? Nobody sees it as they blow past it on the 405 — all they see is that billboard.
Ask anyone in LA, what is Centinela Valley? And they won’t know. This is in part because there is no Centinela Valley; the name is not a marker of geography. Nor is it part of the high-profile Los Angeles Unified School District. Finally, and most importantly, the students here are indigent. Many have lived much of their lives in the third world: Mexico, Central America or Africa. Their non-English-speaking parents hold down multiple jobs, and their test scores are the lowest in all of Los Angeles County.
Over the years there I’d interviewed many of these students. Some had seen one or both of their parents disappear from their lives forever via deportation or crime. One returned to Mexico for a year when his parents were deported. Because he was born in the United States and therefore a U.S. citizen, he couldn’t attend Mexican public schools, so he spent a year at age 14 in a parking lot of a legislative building with a bucket and rag, washing the cars of politicians, before finding his way back to Los Angeles — sans father. I profiled another student who came home from school one day to find her parents dead of a murder-suicide.
It is invisible places like this where corruption can thrive.
Upon my arrival, I was immediately made aware that corruption here was systemic, so it was on my radar from Day One. But as the Daily Breeze’s education reporter, I had to keep tabs on about a dozen school districts, so my attention waxed and waned.
It was however one of the few districts whose school board meetings I always made a point to attend. Why? Because I figured there would be stories here. And there were. Among the dozens of stories I covered my first year at the Daily Breeze about Centinela was a piece highlighting the generous contract of new superintendent Jose Fernandez. This was late 2010. The teachers union had been making noise about it, and I covered the dustup as a routine story. At the time, Fernandez’s pay hovered around $300,000. Pretty high for the area, but nobody really cared.
Fast forward a year and a half to July of 2012. I receive an email from an anonymous tipster who tells me that he or she – to this day I don’t know the gender — has it on good authority that Mr Fernandez was making upwards of 500,000 a year.
At this point we began monitoring his pay. We learned of a handy trick for doing this. Rather than doing battle with the district over public records requests and messing around with having to add up all the elements of his pay – such as salary, benefits and whatnot – we asked the county office of education for one simple document: his W-2. The beauty here is the W-2 offers a single, clean number – the total cost to the district of any given employee, in this case, superintendent.
For comparative purposes, we procured W-2’s for other superintendents in the area.
Every few months, we ordered a new round of W-2s.
Over time, the pay gap between Fernandez and his peers got wider and wider.
Six months passed; a year.
Was it a story yet? We always asked that question, and kept monitoring..
The answer arrived unceremoniously during the week before Christmas of 2013 – a full year and a half after the anonymous tip. It was my last day before flying back to the Midwest for the holidays, and the county sent the latest round of W-2s. When I saw the figure for Jose Fernandez, my eyes went wide. I stopped by the desk of my editor, Frank Suraci, and dropped the document on his keyboard. Jose Fernandez’s total pay for 2013 had mushroomed to $663,000 — about three times what some of his peers were making. Merry Christmas: we had a story.
When I returned after the start of the new year, we got to work. In early February, we dropped the first bombshell about his pay and benefits, which included a sweetheart, low-interest loan for nearly $1 million to purchase a home. Not long after, our executive editor Michael Anastasi recognized the potential of the story and assigned the talented Rebecca Kimitch to join our efforts.
We would come to learn that, while the district was busy laying off teachers by the dozen and stripping away programs for needy kids like vocational education, P.E. and summer school, Jose Fernandez was working way fewer days than a normal superintendent and, as Rebecca reported, taking lavish cruises on the Mediterranean.
Also enjoying the spoils was an elite cast of collaborators, which included a law firm, a construction management company and two Los Angeles politicians with no discernible ties to the district. School board members, too, were rewarded for their complicity, with jobs and illegal stipends.
Our series of stories wasn’t a cure-all for Centinela; plenty of problems remain. But they had an impact. Summer school was restored, for example, as was physical education. Fernandez was fired and replaced. The FBI and the District Attorneys Office opened separate probes. A long, costly legal battle the district had waged against the teachers union was settled. The school board’s illegal stipends were revoked and the district’s exorbitant legal fees were reined in.
It was one of those stories: the more you reported, the more work there was to do. We took it one story at a time, with no conception of where it would lead. And here we are.