CCSD’s systemic problem and its expensive consequences, Part 5

During the first six months of 2008, Ken Forrest, an independent consultant and the principal of the LDRShipSolutions firm, was employed as a top-level Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) project advisor to the Clark County School District.

Earlier, he’d been contacted by then-CFO Jeff Weiler, who’d called, saying, “I really need your help.”

Not only was Phase One of the project quickly burning money, it had also missed multiple go-live dates.

One of the first things Forrest and an associate did was to save CCSD substantial coin.

He says it became apparent to both of them “that SAP had all these consultants on site, but we couldn’t tie what they were doing to any significant work product.

“So we started tracking that and then went to Mr. Weiler and said, ‘We think we can get rid of a lot of these consultants and you won’t even notice.’ Which we did. As I recall, we got rid of about 13 of them. No one noticed that they were gone. They weren’t doing anything.”

Next was dealing with some difficulties the district was having getting the SAP Finance module “up and running and balanced.”

While CCSD had some good people working on the problem, in Forrest’s opinion, “some of the SAP consultants were less than effective, even at $367 an hour, which is, I believe, what they were charging…

“So we brought in Plante Moran, a national accounting firm. They’re big; you can Google them. They’re the guys the government brought in to fix everything after the Enron failure. I had worked with Plante Moran in Detroit. They’d been fantastic in helping me turn around what had been a qualified [accountants’] opinion to get” the Government Finance Officers’ Association Certificate of Excellence, among other awards.

“Anyway, we brought Plante Moran in, they assisted the district, and with the district’s significant contribution and help, they got that system balanced in six weeks, and up and ready to go.”

On other fronts, however — Payroll and Purchasing — Forrest says he saw significant roadblocks.

For multiple reasons, he recalls, the payroll implementation was stuck. “At the time, the lady who was running [CCSD’s] payroll system there — her husband had become critically ill. And when the person who’s been running the payroll for a district of that size can’t devote, really, the time required, it’s risky to try to move the payroll.”

Next, Forrest says, was that he “didn’t believe SAP had the right answer for bringing the payroll live.” Instead, he believed the district should turn to the consulting firm that had “started the rescue of LAUSD payroll” when that district “had a big $54 million problem.”

CCSD and the mystery of Bramby Tollen’s power

But beyond the payroll problems, he says, was an even more significant issue that CCSD faced and would not resolve: the de facto power over the entire project that was being exercised by one back-office director — Bramby Tollen, at the time head of Purchasing.

This is how Forrest, speaking with Nevada Journal, introduced the subject:

KF: Anyway, yes, there was another problem. Is Bramby Tollen still there?

NJ: No, she’s not…

KF: Yeah, I left because I felt there were major impediments to a successful implementation. You just talked about the biggest one. I was pretty adamant that if her involvement in the project could not be changed, I felt there was no hope for a successful implementation. That, added with the illness of the Payroll Director’s spouse, really put it on shaky ground….

And I’ll be point blank: I thought Bramby’s interference in the project was a major problem.

NJ: What exactly did you see happening?

KF: Well, we would come up with a strategy how to address certain problems, meet and try to get the team moving in that direction, and she would reverse it. Unilaterally. And to me, that was like: “What? You’re the purchasing agent. You’re not running this project.”

And another thing was [the situation with] a very nice man named Keith, who went on to a different district in Utah,

NJ: Keith Bradford?

KF: Yeah, nice guy. But I don’t believe he had the executive sponsorship to do things like shut Bramby down.

I talked to him. And he said he could not understand how she could get Mr. Weiler’s and Mr. McIntosh’s support for that. Yep.

NJ: Do you have any theory as to what was going on there?

KF: Well, the superintendent backed her up at that time. So she either had a relationship or something that allowed her to go directly to the superintendent to overrule Mr. Weiler and Mr. McIntosh. I mean, I witnessed it.

And so, you know how things are: If you have many, many things on your plate you’re attempting to accomplish, you’re only going to get beaten up many, many times, it’s only a matter of time before you just stop trying to solve that problem and go fix all the other problems.

And I believe that’s what had occurred with Mr. Weiler and Mr. McIntosh. And Keith [Bradford].

I was astounded, I was just like him. I mean I talked to him a number of times. I’d say, “What does this woman have that allows her to have this kind of power?”

I didn’t get it. I’ve not seen it elsewhere.

So I said, “I’m not going to keep doing this.”

I have a conscience and I didn’t want to keep billing that district my rate. Because as a consultant, I don’t want to be known as a guy that just runs the bill up. Okay?

I mean, I had a contract, I could have stayed, I could have kept billing. But they weren’t listening to what I was saying. And so, I’m going, “Well, this is crazy. I’m charging them all this money. I’m giving them good advice. But they’re not following it. I’m not going to stay here, because I’ve a conscience. I don’t want to do that.”

So, I left.

When Forrest opted to depart CCSD, the rate the district was paying for his advice was roughly $32,166 a month, according to CCSD warrants obtained by Nevada Journal. He left only six months after coming aboard the project in early 2008.

As for Bramby Tollen, many questions still surround not only her 12-year history as CCSD purchasing director, but also how and why, on March 28, 2013, that history came to a sudden end — for reasons that the district has never fully disclosed.

However, even before that, Tollen had been brought to the attention of CCSD’s board of trustees in a report that suggested central-office administrators have been quite comfortable in acting to keep trustees ignorant of certain expenditures.

During an October 2011 board meeting, a district employee told trustees that, early in 2009, when working alongside three SAP consultants in the purchasing department, Tollen had “come into our area and ask[ed] all the consultants to leave immediately.”

The reason Tollen had given, said Elena Rodriguez-Malfavon, was that “a board member was coming to the department and she did not want the board member to see the consultants working in the department.”

“This statement from Bramby Tollen,” continued Rodriguez-Malfavon, addressing trustees during the meeting’s public comment period, indicated “that the Board was not aware that SAP consultants and ABAP[1] programmers had started to work on the SAP/ERP Project once again.” Following Tollen’s directive, “Immediately all the consultants packed their things and left the [Purchasing] Department.”

At the time, CCSD was telling the public and the State of Nevada that the project had been placed in “hibernation.” Indeed, in a state-mandated report submitted to the Legislature on January 28, 2009, Craig Kadlub, chief of staff to CCSD’s then-superintendent, Walt Rulffes, was writing that, “Due to budget constraints, the ERP project has been put on hold indefinitely.”

Nevada Journal reached out by telephone to Tollen at her current position in Washington state, requesting any statement or comment she might choose to make, but received no reply.

Over the course of the 14 years Tollen was purchasing director, she was entrusted with billions of dollars-worth of district expenditures. CCSD trustees routinely approved in each regular meeting, with little inquiry, hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of purchasing-department expenses.

In 2004, for example, board minutes show trustees approving, over the year’s 14 board meetings, purchase orders totaling $465.5 million.

Tollen loses her powerful position

On that fateful Friday in March 2014 when Tollen — according to her under-oath testimony during later litigation — learned she was being removed from the purchasing-director post, she had unsuspectingly entered the office of her supervisor, district CFO Jim McIntosh.

Soon after observing the additional presence of Human Resources Director Staci Vesneske, Tollen was informed by McIntosh that she was being transferred, as a “Director on Special Assignment,” to the Human Resources department.

Moreover, she was told, she would not be permitted, following the meeting, to return to her old office in CCSD’s purchasing department.

While she would continue to receive her same Director-III-level salary, she would now assist HR Director Vesneske.

It was later that year, in September, that Tollen became prominent in Southern Nevada news. It became public that, while claiming CCSD sick leave and continuing to draw her CCSD salary, Tollen had actually been working fulltime since June as the purchasing manager for Snohomish County in Washington state.

When Nevada Journal reported that story, which then saw wider distribution via a Las Vegas Review-Journal report, HR Director Vesneske, representing the embarrassed school district, scheduled an investigative hearing into possible wrongdoing by Tollen, court records show.

Receiving notice of that pending hearing — into the question of Tollen’s alleged dishonesty — Tollen then contacted her union, the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees (CCASA).

According to CCASA Executive Stephen Augspurger, at the request of Tollen, the union inquired whether the investigative hearing would go forward if Tollen resigned from her CCSD job beforehand.

Informed that it would not, Tollen signed a resignation/retirement form and the hearing was cancelled.

Pushed during litigation, Tollen airs CCSD dirty laundry

Later, however, as detailed in hearings before the state’s Employee-Management Relations Board (EMRB), Tollen brought suit against CCASA, saying the union had not fulfilled its duty to adequately represent her interests when CCSD deducted $23,000 from her accrued vacation time and other moneys to be paid her following her resignation.

Tollen also argued that comments by Augspurger to the Las Vegas Review-Journal following Tollen’s resignation from the administrators’ union — that CCSD needed “to be recapturing that money, one way or another” — breached CCASA’s obligations to her. She claimed those comments incentivized CCSD to dock her payout by the estimated $23,000 she had been paid by CCSD as “sick time,” while she was actually working for Washington’s Snohomish County.

Transcripts of the two days of EMRB hearings are available here and here. Ultimately, the Employee-Management Relations Board found that the union had breached none of its responsibilities.

Tollen also sought to sue CCSD, but effectively dropped that suit when the district’s counsel, utilizing discovery rules, presented her with 14 interrogatories and 28 discovery requests. On August 26, 2016, she agreed with the district for the suit to be dismissed with prejudice.

During both litigations, Tollen repeatedly emphasized that her primary complaint was that CCSD had suddenly, in March 2014, removed her from her purchasing-director position, a post she’d held for 12 years, and put her in a job for which she was “not qualified” and “did not like.”

The transfer had been retaliation, she insisted, for her role the previous September when CCSD Trustee Erin Cranor learned that she and her fellow trustees had been misled about an expensive and improper insurance contract.

Tollen said that, while trustees had been correctly told that the district would save about $1 million under the new contract for vision insurance, for the entire package of contracts the reverse of that was true:

There were several contracts… A contract for vision, a contract for dental, and a contract for health, in general. And … parties had led the Board to believe that there was cost savings. And that was true of the vision; the vision costs a million dollars less than it had before. But it wasn’t true of the health. The health actually costs $7 million more or 8 [million more]. And there was a net loss or a net overpayment, if you will, of $6-to-$7 million.

And so when the contracts were spoken of sometimes, the vision would be pulled out and it would make it sound like there was cost savings, but that was only one contract and it wasn’t the net effect. And so … when Trustee Cranor came to visit me, we looked through that and she was extremely surprised and very upset because those dollar figures are supposed to be disclosed and approved by the Board, and she didn’t believe they had been.

She left very upset. And she came back either that day — I think it was the next day — and said to me that there were a lot of upset people now, and that she had gone to her attorney, who is the — Mary Ann Peterson at the DA’s office, I think, and asked for protection for me, because she was afraid that I was in harm’s way and that the DA had suggested I become familiar with the whistleblowers protection.

It was immediately following her disclosure of that information to CCSD Trustee Erin Cranor, Tollen told the EMRB, that she began receiving “various levels of retaliation and workplace hostility.”

Moreover, she said, that harassment was triggering the return of PTSD symptoms she’d experienced in 2011 and for which she again had to consult doctors. Her CCSD workplace had become toxic for her, she argued, and that led her to request to go on sick leave.

The PTSD, she said, had originated back in 2011, when:

… My life was threatened. One of my employees took exception to [the staff] reduction in force [that CCSD was implementing at the time], even though he wasn’t involved. And he took a doll and made it look like me, apparently, and he hung it from the rafters in the warehouse, in the workplace.

And he also brought pictures of guns. The police were called when he did that. And [it was] found that on District time, he had spent two weeks researching the type of rope and the type of knot that would be necessary to hang somebody my size, and the doll that he purchased to look like me was using that type of rope and that type of knot.

The police stayed with me. I developed — I was very jumpy. I was afraid. I was not to be alone. He was immediately expelled from the workplace, pending termination. He grieved it. A mediator came in and … agreed that he had … created a hostile work environment, and the termination was upheld.

But I did see a doctor. Security cameras were ordered, and they took a long time to be installed. In fact, the installation was completed the week I was transferred.

The climax of the retaliation, Tollen said, was at 2 p.m. Friday, March 28, 2014, when she was directed into the office of CCSD Chief Financial Officer Jim McIntosh.

According to Tollen’s EMRB testimony:

… when I got there, the door was closed and I was ushered in. And [Human Resources Director] Staci Vesneske and [CFO] Jim McIntosh were there, and Staci said that they had done a reorganization of Purchasing and decided that my position could be downgraded. And in order to save my job range, they were going to transfer me to HR, and she had a job description to go through with me and said it would be effective that day or the following Monday…

Tollen’s legal complaint against CCSD states that she “was not allowed to return to her office nor was she allowed to pack her personal belongings without permission from” HR Director Vesneske.

A curt, one-paragraph letter from CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky — dated the following Monday, March 31 — was given to Tollen. It stated:

This letter serves as your notice that you are assigned as an Administrator on Special Assignment. You will report to the Chief Human Resources Offices, Human Resources Unit, effective March 31, 2014.

Eventually, said Tollen, she “was told by two doctors that the stress from the transfer [had] re-triggered the PTSD.”

This story has been updated to ensure linked documents, when opened, open in other browser windows. It was also updated later to correct the month — late September, not October — when Cranor saw the insurance-broker contract.

Coming in Part Six: What the Bramby Tollen episodes reveal about CCSD

Links to the entire eight-part series

— — — — —

Steven Miller is the longtime managing editor of Nevada Journal.

[1] ABAP stands for “Advanced Business Application Programming,” and is the coding language in which SAP applications are written.

This article was revised 5-31-2017 to correct the spelling of Stephen Augspurger’s name.

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