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Lodi Unified School District denies conflict of interest

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Posted: Friday, June 21, 2013 12:00 am

A consulting firm that employs the spouse of Lodi Unified School District’s top business officer has been hired to audit aspects of the district’s special education program, leading some parents to question whether the contract presents a conflict of interest.

Ann Hern, wife of Lodi Unified’s chief business officer Tim Hern, is a finance specialist for WestEd, a nonprofit consulting firm.

WestEd is completing the audit at a cost of $48,000, and the final report should be done in mid-July.

The News-Sentinel was contacted by parents of special education students who say they see a conflict in the arrangement. They did not wish to be named for fear that their children might be mistreated.

Only one other firm submitted a bid on the project — School Innovations & Achievements, which offered to conduct the audit for $97,000, according to school district records.

None of the parties involved considered the hiring of WestEd to be a conflict of interest.

“Mr. Hern was not involved in the decision-making process,” Lodi Unified Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer said in an email. “WestEd is a highly respected research group that presented a proposal which met our specific needs. In addition, their proposal provided outstanding service by highly-sought-after experts for a significantly lower cost than we have seen elsewhere.

“The review will help the district make decisions regarding special education,” Nichols-Washer said.

WestEd will present recommendations on Lodi Unified’s special education system by about mid-July, said Janelle Kubinec, WestEd’s director of national, state and special projects. After that, the WestEd team will begin working with Lodi Unified on carrying out the recommendations, Kubinec said.

Ann Hern declined to comment on a potential conflict of interest, deferring any comment from WestEd to Kubinec.

WestEd would not have bid on the project if they thought there would be a conflict, Kubinec said.

However, Tim Hern said, “I have nothing to do with special education. (My wife) was assigned to this project. I was aware of that. She’s not setting up the audit. Her specialty is data analysis (financial). She’s just doing her job.”

Officials from School Innovations & Achievement, which submitted the higher of the two bids and wasn’t awarded the contract, weren’t concerned with a possible conflict between WestEd and Lodi Unified.

“We have no comment other than to note our experience is that both WestEd and Lodi Unified are highly professional and reputable organizations,” Susan Cook, chief operating officer for School Innovations & Achievement, said in an email.

Lodi Unified board member George Neely was initially surprised when he learned that Ann Hern is working on the special education audit, considering that her husband is a Lodi Unified administrator, but he’s satisfied now.

“Everything is fine on it,” Neely said after asking district officials about it. “There aren’t many experts on (special education). They have quite a background on it.”

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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