Ties between EUSD yoga program, foundation and school raise concerns

Ties between EUSD yoga program, foundation and school raise concerns
The site of the Sonima Foundation, previously known as the Jois Foundation, office on Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas sits empty. The Jois Foundation logo still remains on the entrance door. Photo by Tony Cagala

ENCINITAS — Encinitas Union School District officials have long touted its yoga program and its benefits to students, and they have pointed to a study by the University of San Diego to bolster its claims.

The yoga program has recently become the center of a controversy after the school district tentatively agreed in April to use $800,000 of taxpayer dollars to keep it going after the foundation that has given the district millions in grant dollars to start it and maintain it, the Sonima Foundation, announced it would no longer provide the funding. The district has since scaled back the amount to just over $400,000.

In the defense to parents who have questioned whether the district should use the funds to maintain the program, school Superintendent Tim Baird again touted the USD report.

“Research conducted by USD and the District shows there is a correlation with the program and increased attendance, decreased behavior issues, and improved physical health and skills,” School Superintendent Tim Baird wrote in a recent document answering questions about the yoga program. “This program has been popular with students, parents, and staff. In focus group data gathering and surveys, approximately 2/3 of all respondents or more have expressed that they value the program.”

But an investigation by The Coast News into the financial records of the Sonima Foundation reveal, among other things, a complex web of payments from the Sonima Foundation to the director of the USD center that conducted the survey, raising conflict of interest concerns among parents and experts.

The Coast News also found that the very report the district has used to advance the yoga program calls into question its effectiveness, but that Baird, USD and the Sonima Foundation — which is primarily funded by several billionaire hedge fund investors — have highlighted only the positive aspects of the report.

In addition, Baird’s own daughter appears to have been employed by the Sonima Foundation at the height of the partnership, raising further concerns about the relationship between Baird and the foundation.

Baird and Scott Himelstein, the director of the University of San Diego Center for Education Policy and Law, the school at the center of the controversy, both defended their roles in relationship and denied any allegations of conflict of interest, calling any such allegations “a red herring.”

“There is definitely a legitimate and healthy discussion that should be happening, and is happening, dealing with what our budget priorities should be,” Baird said. “But when it devolves to these accusations and name calling, this is where I have to say no, this is not healthy discourse.”

The Coast News reached out to Sonima Foundation officials for the story, including former Executive Director Eugene Ruffin and current Executive Director Terry Grier, who formerly served as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Ruffin declined comment and Grier did not respond to numerous calls, emails and messages for comment.

Complex web of payments 

The Coast News reviewed the IRS 990 tax returns from 2012, 2013 and 2014 from the Sonima Foundation, which coincides with the start and height of the EUSD yoga program. Tax returns for the 2015 calendar year are not available through publicly available websites such as Guidestar and the state Attorney General’s charity database.

The Sonima Foundation, previously known as the Jois Foundation, awarded USD Center for Education Policy and Law, known as CEPAL, nearly $500,000 in grant funds to research the foundation’s yoga programs between 2012 and 2014, including the Encinitas program. This included $90,000 in 2012 and a $377,000 grant in 2014, as the program had expanded to several other districts across the country.

Beginning in 2012, the Sonima Foundation also began contracting with two educational-based companies — The Chandler Hill Group Inc. and Portico Educational Services, LLC.

The Chandler Hill Group first received a $104,000 contract in 2012, and the amount escalated to $318,000 and $481,000 in 2013 and 2014 respectively. According to the tax returns, the company was to, among other things, “develop a partnership with the University of San Diego…to research and report on the results of the Sonima programs,” as well as to “support required public relation/public policy changes on the state and local levels to make health and wellness best practices an integrated component of the public education system.”

Portico Educational Services received payments of $35,000 in 2013 and $80,000 in 2014 to perform data collection at the various sites, including Encinitas.

Business records show that both the Chandler Hill Group and Portico Education are companies owned by Scott Himelstein, who currently serves as the director of CEPAL — the center that performed the Encinitas yoga research study.

At the same time as Himelstein’s companies received more than $1 million from the foundation, he also served on the Sonima Foundation as an advisory board member, listed alongside Baird, who was listed as an advisory board member until earlier this month.

Himelstein also said that he requested to be removed from the advisory board after he “reconsidered” his participation. Baird was also recently removed from the advisory board section, work, he said, that he hadn’t done in more than 18 months.

USD produced two reports that exclusively focused on Encinitas yoga during its early stages. One of those reports was authored by Michael Corke, who was listed at the time as the interim research director at CEPAL. Corke is now the Sonima Foundation’s director of research.

Parents have questioned whether the funding from the Sonima Foundation and the ties that it had with USD could have created an incentive that could be construed as a conflict of interest that calls into question the veracity of the study and its reported findings.

The parents have created a website, encinitasparents4truth.com, which details many of the same findings made by The Coast News. It also lists several conclusions that the parents drew from their findings.

“USD CEPAL research is not independent and produces misleading, biased research conclusions complicit with the missions of its wealthy founders,” according to the website. “Backed by multi-millionaires, these Foundations influence school policy by providing hidden massive monetary incentives to USD Research Director Scott Himelstein and directly compensate other researchers.”

“The relationship between these parties is intentionally hidden from the public through the use (of) complex payment schemes to 3rd party entities,” the website continues.

Two experts in nonprofit research said that the financial connections between the foundation, Himelstein and USD Center were “unusual.”

“It is not normal as far as I know,” said James Ferris, a professor at the University of Southern California school of Public Policy and Development. “There are a number of questions/issues the facts as noted raise….both from the Foundation side, as well as potential conflicts on the USD side.”

Mark Hager, an associate professor of Philanthropic Studies in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University, echoed Ferris’ sentiments.

“I think you can call those things into question, and it raises some interesting questions,” Hager said. “It could be that they have a legitimate reason, or they could be just investing in their friends to tell them what they want to hear and tout the good results.”

Encinitas Union School District board members, who have supported the yoga program, were unaware of the many of the details of the district’s partnership with Sonima and USD. One board member who spoke to The Coast News said the allegations raised by parents in recent weeks and the information uncovered by The Coast News was surprising, though they believed it isn’t relevant to the current decision — whether the district should be funding yoga with taxpayer dollars.

“The issue on the table is budget and yoga,” Board President Emily Andrade said.  “That is where my focus and priorities are, is this something the district should fund. If there was something illegal going on, that would be my job, and at this time I am not aware of anything suspicious or illegal being done by Tim Baird.”

A rosy report

In 2013, a year after the foundation had launched its yoga initiative at Encinitas schools, USD released its first report on the Yoga Program, “Implementing Yoga in Public Schools: Evidence from the Encinitas Union School District’s Pilot Yoga Program 2012-2013.” This report outlined findings of the challenges found during the pilot’s implementations and recommendations to make the program run smoother.

Two months later, USD released its data-driven report that showed some preliminary findings about the impact yoga was having on the students and the schools. This report, entitled “Yoga in Public Schools: Evidence from the Encinitas Union School District’s Yoga Program 2012-2013,” collected data from parents, teachers, students and instructors about the program and made findings based on that data.

Two of the chief findings that the school district immediately seized onto were that students like the yoga program and that students’ emotional wellness had improved since the implementation of yoga.

The report, however, also details other less than enthusiastic findings, including that teachers at schools that had the yoga program the full year reported more instances of bullying and disruptive behavior than schools who had it for half of the year, and that students at full-year yoga programs performed worse on certain fitness benchmarks, such as for upper body strength, then their half-year counterparts.

Baird, in an interview with The Coast News, acknowledged the reports’ findings were mixed, but said that its findings were consistent with the district’s own focus group studies, which showed that students, parents and teachers saw benefit from the yoga program.

Parents who have been opposed to the proposed expenditure, however, argue that Baird is now retreating from his previous enthusiasm towards the report findings, and that he misled parents by not mentioning the mixed or negative aspects of the report.

Baird said that he had always informed Sonima about his reservations with the research studies they wanted to perform, because he was skeptical they would yield a one-to-one relationship between yoga and improved student performance, which he believed the Sonima Foundation was looking for.

“They wanted to see the Holy Grail, and I said that it was going to be a very hard thing to find,” Baird said. “What we were looking for in the research was to see if students valued the yoga program. Our studies and our teacher and student focus groups have been in favor of it.”

Baird said that his decisions regarding the yoga program were not based solely on the USD studies, and that frankly the results didn’t matter.

“We were seeing enough good things in this program that we felt it should continue,” Baird said. “The report was more for the funders of Sonima, not for us.”

As for the appearance that the research could be compromised by the Sonima Foundation’s payments to Himelstein and later by Corke taking a job with the foundation, Baird said he believed the argument was a “red herring.”

“These are professional independent researchers, they are not going to jeopardize their professional roles as researchers by saying what the foundation wants to say,” he said. “And when Sonima went to hire a researcher, it makes sense they would look to someone with whom they had a relationship. This is about people knowing people and quality work, and you go to the people you know and they know what you are doing.”

Himelstein echoed those sentiments.

“More than a year ago the foundation requested to consider and interview the author of the Encinitas study for a newly created position in their organization and I was pleased to provide him with the opportunity to do so,” he said about Corke.

Hager said that the fact that the report did contain both positive and negative information about the program eases the appearance of impropriety by the researchers. Once the research is complete, however, the foundation and others could spin the findings to their benefit.

“Why would they do that?” Hager said. “Perhaps because they are more interested in something that results in additional contributions than generating a true program evaluation that results in a more productive direction for the program.

“The second set of motivation is less about the science and the researchers and more often than not what happens is that the communications wings take over, and they will continue to tout the program,” Hager said.

EUSD, Sonima tied from beginning

To understand the earlier ties between the school district and the Sonima Foundation, one must first understand that the foundation was borne from the fledgling yoga program introduced at the school district.

The KP Jois Foundation was formed in 2011 by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia with the concept of bringing yoga to and researching its benefits in underserved schools. The first school was Ivy Hawn Charter School for the Arts in Lake Helen, Fla., which received a $40,000 grant and $8,000 to pay for several yoga instructors.

Also involved in the foundation’s inception was Carlsbad resident Eugene Ruffin, who served as the executive director.

Later that year, however, the foundation underwent a significant overhaul, focusing its attention on Encinitas Union School District, introducing yoga to students at Capri Elementary School.

Encouraged by the results, in 2012 the organization put together a $533,000 grant for yoga and nutrition at all nine EUSD campuses and rapidly expanded its board and fundraising. The organization’s 2012 tax returns show that money coming into the foundation jumped from $125,000 in its first year to $1.3 million the next year.

That year, they awarded USD CEPAL a $90,000 grant, though the tax return doesn’t provide an explanation for the grant’s purpose.

The foundation also hired the Chandler Hill Group, Himelstein’s company. According to the 2012 tax returns, among the company’s duties were to, “plan, manage and execute with the Foundation, designated public relations firm and Encinitas school district a ‘Kick Off Campaign’ for the Encintas program initiative.”

After declining comment on several occasions, Himelstein emailed The Coast News a statement in which he attempted to explain the relationship between his companies, the Foundation and the USD program that he directs.

“The Sonima Foundation provided a donation to support CEPAL to do work in the area of health and wellness in schools. We of course focused our work in Encinitas as the foundation had informed us of their partnership with EUSD. Subsequently thereafter and only after the donation was pledged was my company Chandler Hill asked by the foundation to consult on issues unrelated and not undertaken in the specific work done by CEPAL,” Himelstein wrote.

“These included many tasks on the local, state and national levels but did not include arranging for any contractual/partnership agreement with CEPAL.

“CEPAL was the recipient of a donation from the Foundation, interacted and communicated with the Foundation but did not enter into any partnership or contractual relationship with the Sonima Foundation,” Himelstein continued.

Baird said his recollection was that Sonima had contacted Himelstein about doing policy work that would promote health and wellness on a national level, and then afterward engaged him about CEPAL studying the Encinitas program.

“Once that (policy contract) was in place, they started talking about, “You (Himelstein) are in charge of one of the best research facilities in the area, can we hire you to do a research evaluation as well,” Baird said. “Foundations do this all the time, they evaluate to see if their money is making a difference.”

Baird said he had met Himelstein before the yoga program when USD was looking at Encinitas Union School District to launch a pilot mobile learning program.

The partnership between the foundation and Encinitas Union rose dramatically in 2013, when, despite a lawsuit being filed on behalf of a local family claiming the yoga program was indoctrinating Hinduism on the district students, the foundation awarded the school district a $1.4 million grant. This allowed the school district to hire two yoga instructors at each school.

The Foundation’s fundraising, once again, exploded, rising from $1.3 million to nearly $3.2 million, with most of the donations coming from two sources: Sonia Jones and the Dalio Family Foundation, which was founded by Ray Dalio, the billionaire businessman who founded the Bridgewater Associates investment firm.

In 2014, the foundation and school district’s partnership reached its height. The district again received $1.4 million in grant funding, and the foundation brought in more than $4.4 million in donations.

This allowed the foundation to continue to expand the program to other areas, including Cajon Valley Union School District, whose superintendent is a former Encinitas Union administrator, the Monarch School, which serves homeless teens in San Diego, and Broome Street Academy, a school that serves homeless and foster-care teens in New York City.

During the peak of the partnership between Encinitas, the Foundation and USD’s research, Baird attended numerous conferences alongside Himelstein and Sonima representatives where he touted the district’s yoga program. One such event was a three-day symposium April 2014 in Lenox, Mass.

Baird said he was not on district time when he went to the symposiums, but said the Sonima Foundation did pay for his travel expenses.

Baird’s daughter, Kelsey, also got a job with Sonima, doing public relations work for several months with the foundation. Baird acknowledged that his daughter worked for the foundation but said the employment was only temporary and he did not see any potential conflicts.

“I don’t see how there is a quid pro quo here, because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, and it wasn’t like we were hiring Sonima people at the district,” Baird said. “My daughter had been doing volunteer work for them, and there came a time where the foundation really needed help outreaching with reporters and the media, so they brought her on, but it was only for a few months.”

By 2015, the relationship between the foundation and Encinitas began to wane. The Foundation’s Encinitas office shut its doors, a Wellness Center on Coast Highway 101 that opened early in 2015 shut down and Ruffin had stepped down as the executive director, replaced by Terry Grier, who had recently stepped down as the Houston Independent School District superintendent.

The program began to focus on more at-risk and low-income schools, with the remaining connection between Sonima and Encinitas being the grant funding that it was giving to the school district.

Then, in March of 2016, the foundation abruptly informed the district that the funding would be cut off. Baird said he attempted to work out an arrangement that would have wound down the funding over a course of a year, but did not succeed.

Baird, when speaking to The Coast News, said the foundation had been in the process of changing its business model in 2015, going to a “three years and out” model in which schools would receive funding for three years, and then would be expected to maintain the program on their own.

Since the controversy erupted over the program, however, Baird said he was unable to get board members or executives with the foundation on the phone. He said he was trying to remove his name from the website as a board member, which he succeeded in doing this month.

“At some point in the journey, the foundation went in a new direction that was to serve high-impact districts with high poverty rates, and the focus and the implementation was much more structured than what we were doing here,” Baird said. “Our model doesn’t look like the other models and I think that is unfortunate because I felt we have a better model.

“In reality, our school district has had very little to do with Sonima and USD for more than a year,” he said. “I couldn’t even get them on the phone when all of this happened.”

Baird said the flaw in the argument, that he somehow benefits from the relationship with Sonima, is the fact that Encinitas is no longer being funded by the foundation.

“The whole line of reasoning is a bit ludicrous because if I was so connected with Sonima, they would be funding my program, which they are not,” Baird said. “Sonima is out of the picture. I wish I had some kind of control because they would still be funding it.”

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