Fraud allegations against San Diego-area school reveal deceptive practices used to enrich public pay

In a just-released report documenting possible fraud at the Sweetwater Union High School District, state auditors revealed how staff were able to push through a pay raise for district employees, while deceiving the public about its true impact on the school budget.

Sweetwater officials failed to “properly disclose” the full cost of a 3.75 percent pay raise that the district “could not afford,” auditors found. The unlawful deception means parents and children will now have to suffer unnecessary cuts in order to pay for the illegally passed pay raise.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is how highly paid Sweetwater employees already were before the illegal and unaffordable pay raise was passed.

A previous Transparent California analysis revealed that the average teacher who had been with the district since 2012 was earning over $100,000 in salary, while the average district employee received annual pay increases of nearly 7 percent — more than triple what private-sector workers in that area received over that same time.

While the extent of the alleged fraud may be unique to Sweetwater, the practice of forcing taxpayers and students to bear the costs of soaring public pay is, sadly, all too common.

“Public pay has for years been spiraling out of control,” said Transparent California Research Director Todd Maddison. “It is an inexcusable betrayal of public trust to force students to suffer just so district employees can continue to receive above-market levels of compensation.”

The two district officials most intimately involved with the school’s finances, former director of financial services Doug Martens and former chief financial officer Karen Michel, both retired just as reporters and auditors began looking into the district’s finances. Both also refused to speak with the state auditors after their retirement, according to a report from the Voice of San Diego.

Martens is currently collecting an annual pension of more than $75,000, while Michel is receiving nearly $127,000 a year. Both amounts will increase with inflation and are guaranteed for life.

“If the allegations of fraud, for which there is substantial evidence, are true, criminal charges must be filed,” Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner said.

“As much as we believe in transparency in government, it is of little value if those who abused the system and broke the law are allowed to profit, even after they are caught,” Fellner added.

“The children of Sweetwater Union High will suffer for years to come as a result of these actions,” Fellner added. “What message does it send if those responsible are not held accountable?”

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies themselves, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.