Sacramento Shakedown [emphasis added]
For his community work, Johnson was named one of George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” in 1991. The Sacramento Bee described Johnson’s charity as “almost saintly.”
Looked at more closely, it’s clear that the public benefits promised by Johnson’s various “public–private partnerships” often fail to materialize. Or they come at a very high price. A few examples:
• St. Hope’s development arm built Oak Park’s signature “40 Acres” building, including a beautifully restored Guild Theater, bookstore, and Oak Park’s first Starbucks. It also took nearly $3 million in city loans and grants. But for years, Oak Park residents complained that St. Hope’s properties were overgrown with weeds and illegal dumping. Johnson’s properties gathered dozens of code violations—racking up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Today, the St. Hope website still promises that some of those properties “will be renovated over the next five years” or that they are “scheduled for 2007.” But as that last vow makes painfully clear, the website hasn’t been updated in years; meanwhile, the properties sit empty, unbuilt, or unrefurbished.
• St. Hope also promised to save Johnson’s alma mater, Sacramento High School. Lagging test scores in the early 2000s put Sac High on the state’s list of “failing schools.” Established in 1856, Sac High billed itself as the “second-oldest high school west of the Mississippi,” though the current building dates only from the 1970s. In 2003 the school board gave Sac High to Johnson’s St. Hope to run as a charter school.
The closure of Sac High was bitterly contested. Groups of parents and activists tried for years to kick St. Hope out and revive it as a neighborhood school. The takeover created an undying enmity between Johnson and the Sacramento teachers’ union. Sacramento Charter High School is a success if you go by test scores and graduation rates. But no real empirical comparison can be fairly made between the teeming comprehensive high school of two thousand students and the small charter school of nine hundred that is there today. The latter has an application process, and the local teachers’ union has accused the school of “counseling out” students who don’t perform. In other words, Johnson didn’t turn around Sac High—he gutted it and established a much smaller, more selective school in its place.
• St. Hope’s “Hood Corps” program was funded with AmeriCorps grants to get young volunteers involved in tutoring at-risk youth and other kinds of community service. In 2008 federal officials found that St. Hope had misused the AmeriCorps money for Johnson’s “personal needs and purposes and/or to provide added free or subsidized staff for one or more of the entities controlled by Mr. Johnson.” In other words, the AmeriCorps money helped pay salaries of St. Hope employees. Hood Corps students were also used to run errands for Johnson, to wash his car, and to recruit students for Johnson’s charter schools. Some were even assigned to work on political campaigns for incumbent school board members who, according to federal investigators, “would be more likely to vote in favor of renewing Sac High’s charter.” St. Hope eventually had to give back more than $400,000 to AmeriCorps, and for a time Johnson was barred from receiving public funds from the federal government.
There’s another striking difference between KJ’s charitable network and the nonprofit funds that other mayors control. Whereas the LA mayor’s fund is run by a board of prominent citizens, many with backgrounds in philanthropy, Johnson’s nonprofits are run entirely by his friends and political consultants.
The flagship nonprofit of KJ Inc. is, of course, St. Hope. As mayor, Johnson has been able to leverage, from real estate and other local interests, about $3 million in donations to support the family business. The biggest donors include Sacramento’s biggest sprawl developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos; arena developer Mark Friedman and his family; and Kevin Nagle, part owner of the Sacramento Kings and majority owner of the Sacramento Republic soccer team. Nagle is also on the St. Hope board of directors. All these men have been big donors to Johnson’s election campaigns and to his strong-mayor ballot measure. But while they are limited by strict political campaign contribution limits, they can give unlimited amounts to Johnson’s nonprofits.
They, along with other business interests, also give heavily to Johnson’s Sacramento Public Policy Foundation (SPPF), which is more closely associated with Johnson’s job as mayor. SPPF collects donations from interested parties who want to curry favor with the mayor, and then distributes the cash to various policy initiatives under Johnson’s direction. For a time, these initiatives included an environmental brand called Greenwise Sacramento and an arts program called For Arts’ Sake. Neither of these groups ever did much, and both are now dead links on Johnson’s website.
The real project of SPPF is Johnson’s “Think Big” initiative, which the mayor advertises as a way to “promote transformative projects that catalyze job creation and economic development.” But Think Big would be more accurately described as a public relations shop for stadium subsidies, coordinated out of City Hall, with the labor of city employees.
This was thinking big, indeed. The really innovative part of the KJ Inc. model of governance is the way in which it has studiously blurred the lines between the public and private sector. The players are hard to keep straight without a scorecard. Johnson hired former redevelopment manager Cassandra Jennings to be a liaison between his nonprofits and the mayor’s office. Jennings is on the city payroll, and also on the SPPF board of directors. In 2014 her husband, Rick Jennings—who was on the same school board that gave Sac High to St. Hope—also got himself elected to the city council. Not surprisingly, Jennings has been a reliable vote for his wife’s boss.
More typically, the operations of KJ Inc. go on with no public scrutiny at all. That’s especially true of Johnson’s use of City Hall to advance his brand of education reform, which seeks to roll back teacher protections and turn many more public schools into charters.
Johnson served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson pushed through pro-charter resolutions to speed the school privatization agenda on a national scale.
As it happens, the charter hustle is a Johnson family business. His (then future) wife and former St. Hope board member, Michelle Rhee, was hired by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty as the first Chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007. That year, the city passed reforms that took power away from D.C.’s elected school board and put control of the schools in the mayor’s office. This “mayoralization” of schools is a favorite KJ policy reform.
Fenty would lose reelection in 2010, in part because of Rhee’s confrontational tactics—like her ill-timed announcement that she was firing 241 underperforming D.C. public school teachers (and putting 737 more D.C. public school employees “on notice”) weeks ahead of the mayoral ballot. Once Rhee was sent packing along with Fenty, she was well positioned to clean up on the well-heeled foundation and government-affairs circuits, beginning with the anti-teachers’-union lobbying shop Students First, headquartered just two blocks north of California’s State Capitol and two blocks south of Sacramento City Hall.
That also happened to be the address of Johnson’s own education-related nonprofit, called Stand Up for Sacramento Schools. On its tax forms, Stand Up’s stated mission is “to ensure that every child in Sacramento has the opportunity to attend an excellent public school.”
In fact, Stand Up does next to nothing for Sacramento’s public schools. It is mostly a political organization, leveraging the mayor’s office to promote Johnson’s ideological brand of educational reform, and to promote Johnson himself.
This prime directive is spelled out in a 2011 email from Johnson to a potential Stand Up recruit—cc’d to Johnson’s executive assistant, a city employee. KJ says a large part of Stand Up’s function is to support his efforts to “advocate for much-needed legislation around policies such as Race to the Top, ESEA [No Child Left Behind], and LIFO (‘last in, first out’).” LIFO is the practice of laying off teachers with less seniority, a policy much in vogue among educational reformers. Johnson also mentions Stand Up’s support for “parent trigger” laws in California, which enable parents to vote to turn neighborhood schools into charters.
For more then a decade now, all these policies have been flash points in the ed reform wars. And most of Stand Up’s money comes from outside Sacramento, from the big underwriters of the school reform movement, like the Walmart-owning Walton family and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. In fact, Stand Up has taken in more money in mayoral behests than any of Johnson’s other nonprofits, more than $4 million since he took office.
Early on, Stand Up hosted education town halls and viewing parties for the pro-charter film Waiting for “Superman.” Stand Up promoted Teach for America and City Year in Sacramento schools, over the objections of local teachers’ unions. It supported Johnson’s frequent advocacy junkets to other frontline venues in the school wars, such as his trip to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to stump for a ballot initiative to take power away from the local school board and put it in the hands of the mayor. (Fortunately for the citizens of Bridgeport, the measure failed.)
About the only not-overtly-political thing Stand Up has touched is a reading tutoring program it helped to coordinate in 2011. The actual tutoring work was contracted to another group, which soon took over the project entirely. True to form, Johnson’s “Sacramento Reads” program is now just another dead link on KJ’s website.
Stand Up’s website contains video highlights of a handful of “education policy summits” in other cities, such as Nashville and Atlanta. These clips show Johnson, Rhee, and other Students First employees giving the ed reform pitch. But those events were nearly a year ago. Stand Up’s Facebook and Twitter feeds haven’t been updated in a year. When I called Stand Up’s directors of operations, and longtime KJ associate from back in the Phoenix days, Tracy Stigler, for an update, he hung up on me.