Kern High School District Trustee Chad Vegas stormed out after a heated board meeting Monday, accusing a colleague of voting against awarding a $387,000 consulting contract to a local public relations firm because of a “personal vendetta.”
At issue was a contract set to be awarded to Providence Strategic Consulting Inc. That vote was blocked 3-2 with Trustee Jeff Flores leading the dissenting charge. He complained the search for public relations firms was not robust enough and that he wasn't satisfied with the district staff's choice.
Providence, which has led PR campaigns for oil companies and political candidates, has landed just one contract with a public educational institution — the Kern High School District — Flores said. Providence received that four-month long, $70,000 no-bid contract in March to promote a bond measure.
“We do need a PR firm. We need support. We've had a very bloody year with the chicken suit, the guns, the bathrooms,” Flores said, acknowledging a slew of negative press the district has endured the last four months. “We need the help. I want to make sure we get the right help.”
That's when Vegas called out Flores for disagreeing with the staff recommendation for Providence. He stormed past Flores after the vote failed and accused him of voting based on a “personal vendetta” he holds against the company.
Vegas said he was simply in a hurry to use the restroom.
“My job as a trustee is to ask tough questions. Our taxpayers deserve that,” Flores told Vegas as their dispute spilled into the parking lot after the meeting.
Flores said after the meeting that he holds no vendetta against Providence, and Vegas would not elaborate on his statement. He later clarified to The Californian, however, that what he meant to say was that Flores was voting based on “personal animosity” he harbors against the firm.
Flores, who was part of the evaluation committee for the bid process, selected Providence as his second choice out of four consultants, according to documents obtained by The Californian through the California Public Records Act. His first choice, Yankee Consulting, is a firm that Flores’ boss, Third District Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard, has employed in the past.
Flores recommended Yankee during the bidding process, according to emails obtained by The Californian.
Flores said his dissension Monday had nothing to do with bad blood between Maggard and Tracy Leach, who heads up Providence Consulting. Leach represented development company General Holdings in 2006 and helped lead an anti-Maggard campaign while he was a city councilman running for his current seat on the board of supervisors. Flores is Maggard’s chief of staff.
“The political history of the county does not impact my decision making as a trustee,” Flores said.
Meanwhile, Vegas’ nephew, Seth Josiah Jacobs, was hired by Providence in June, sparking accusations of a conflict of interest because of that $70,000 KHSD contract. Vegas has denied those accusations and said at the time that, as a precaution, would recuse himself from any further discussions or votes regarding Providence.
He told The Californian Tuesday that he could not keep quiet through “that nonsense,” calling Flores’ opposition to the current contract up for discussion an “injustice.”
That potential conflict of interest between Vegas and Providence alone, Flores said, is reason enough not to hire the firm.
“Why would we hire someone who's giving us negative PR to handle a PR contract,” Flores said.
‘A VERY BLOODY YEAR’
The argument between Flores and Vegas underlies what trustees say is an urgent and pressing need: shielding the district from negative press.
“I'm not in the business of evaluating our staff,” Vegas told The Californian, but said later “our PR sucks.”
KHSD employs Lisa Krch, a former local television reporter as its in-house public relations manager. She earns about $98,000 a year.
The district sought other options, hence the possible contract with Providence, which would cost about $126,000 a year, plus $261,000 for advertising.
Krch said she was under the impression she would work in tandem with Providence.
In just the past four months, the district has contended with a spate of unfavorable news stories, including some that made international headlines.
The district's insurance carrier settled a civil suit mid-trial in June, awarding $10.5 million to Mitch Carter. The former Bakersfield High School student wore a chicken costume to mock an opposing school's mascot and became the victim of a violent dog pile during a pep rally gone wrong.
The story of Carter's brain injury, including photographs of Carter's high-profile attorney, Nicholas Rowley, donning a chicken suit during closing arguments, received international media attention.
Beyond the settlement, the autonomy of KHSD’s police force, which investigated the incident, was called into question after it was revealed at trial that administrators were taking witness statements and not sharing them with officers.
District lawyers attempted to put a gag order on anyone involved in the case and have media barred from the court proceedings. A judge denied that request.
The same week the chicken suit story broke, trustees voted to allow concealed carry weapon permit holders to tote guns on campus, despite heated opposition from safety advocates. Trustees are expected to decide whether to allow school employees to carry firearms during a September board meeting.
Before the guns, trustees took up the issue of whether to allow individuals identifying as transgender to use the bathroom of their choice, as federal guidelines now dictate.
When The Californian asked Vegas about transgender bathroom use being a civil rights issue, he called it “stupid” and “laughable on its face” after vowing to violate any state law violating his religious conscience.
He later decided not to run for reelection so he wouldn't have to uphold those laws.
Similarly, Trustee Mike Williams marginalized another minority group Monday, calling parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for personal beliefs “stupid” and “strange.”
BLAMING THE MEDIA
Williams blamed the district's negative public image on what he described as slanted media practices.
“We need to have a proactive campaign of enlightening our community what good things are happening, because papers and TVs tend to, you know, it's just their nature to put out the negative,” Williams said during Monday’s meeting.
The district has also become the target of a negative advertising campaign spearheaded by the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the district alleging its disciplinary policies discriminate against minority students.
“Can we afford another month of bad press and getting beat up by DHF to the tune of $100,000 a month?” Vegas asked Flores after the meeting, hinting at the urgency to bring a public relations firm on board.
(Fact check: the Dolores Huerta Foundation partnered with Kern Educational Justice Collaborative to launch the three-month advertising campaign Vegas references, which actually cost a flat fee of $75,000. The campaign is winding down this month.)
Coming back from such a flurry of negative press and portraying a positive public image could prove difficult, Krch said.
“I'm a one-woman office here,” said Krch. “There's so many great things happening in our district and I need to find better strategies to share those with the public.”