Claremont Insider: Fear Itself (or $95 Million Fraud Alert)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fear Itself (or $95 Million Fraud Alert)

We're going to go out on a limb here and predict that the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education votes this Thursday to approve a resolution to place a school bond measure on the ballot of the November election. They will do this on Thursday because that is the last regularly scheduled board meeting before the August 6 deadline for a bond to be placed on the November ballot.

As of this writing (3:10pm) the district has posted no agenda on its website for Thursday's meeting. They have not made any official announcement of their intentions because, as is the practice of the Claremont 400, they want as little public discussion about this matter. Discussion might lead to proposals of alternatives, not the least of which is a parcel tax.

The key here is that a bond cannot be used to pay teacher salaries, which is the most pressing budgetary need the district faces. A bond could only be used for things like improving CUSD facilities. A parcel tax, on the other hand, could:

  1. Be worded in such a way as to specify that it would only be used for teacher salaries.

  2. Contain a sunset clause that would allow the tax to lapse in, say, three years, enough to get the district through it's projected deficit.

  3. Not have to be financed.

    Let's not forget that what happened when the district last went to voters for money with Measure Y in 2000. With the help of approximately $80,000 from CUSD contractors, $48.9 million Measure Y bond passed. The contractors were the primary beneficiaries of the voters largess, and, with the help of cost overruns, CUSD burned through the Measure Y money without completing the projects it used to sell voters on the bond in the first place.

This entire bond discussion was decided in the school board's collective minds long ago. The board and the people behind them (take your bow, Claremonsters) made that decision for the voters. The rest of the act, these dog-and-pony shows conducted by CUSD boardmembers Hilary LaConte, Beth Bingham, Jeff Stark, and Mary Caenepeel, have had one goal: to gin up fear in the hearts of parents, teacher organizations, and the rest of the voting public so that they will support the board's predetermination.

It has, in short, been a manipulation, an intellectual fraud, a con, complete with polling data designed to facilitate the bond's passage. The only boardmember not complicit in this game has been Steve Llanusa, whom we haven't always agreed with in the past, but who was at least independent enough to voice his dissent in a Claremont Courier opinion piece several months back.

It's really the school board's blatant manipulation that galls us more than anything. The fear they've cultivated creates a false logic: our schools will fail if we don't get more money; the only way of getting that money is bond; therefore, we must pass a bond to save our schools. It's that second premise that is a lie. The board knows there is another, better choice.

We've seen this fearfulness stirred up before. When the city was trying to purchase Johnson's Pasture in 2006, the same Claremonsters who were responsible for pushing Measure Y and who are behind the current bond effort told the public that we needed to urgently buy the land because developers were lining up to buy the property.

In fact, there was no real threat of such a purchase. Had the City waited until now, it could have obtained the pasture for half the price it paid in 2006, but the Claremont 400 decided what was needed was a "parks and pasture" assessment district at many times the eventual price of the land. The real intent was to create a slush fund which the City could borrow against to pay for anything it wanted.

The 400 lied to Claremont property owners the assessment when they said was the only way Johnson's Pasture could be saved. Even though the proposed assessment district needed only 50% approval to pass, property owners refused to support it because they saw it for what it really was.

The pasture was still saved - by the Measure S bond measure. That bond needed 67% voter approval and ended with 72% of the vote - a number the Claremont 400 had claimed was not possible. The Measure S bond succeeded because it was a quarter of the cost of the assessment district and because the only thing it could be used for was the purchase of Johnson's Pasture.

We see that same dynamic present here. The district uses fear to intentionally muddy the waters. They claim that in this instance a school bond, which needs only 55% approval, would be easier to pass than a parcel tax, which would need 67%. As happened with Johnson's Pasture, the school board (and the local papers, by the way) fails to note that a parcel tax would attract more votes because it would involve no financing, could be directed to the most urgent need, and could be directed to last only a few years, rather than the 30 a bond would require.

The school board's induced fear will be accompanied by kind of mob mentality. If you're not for this bond, you hate our schools and our children, they will say. This second manipulation is as intentional as the first, and the district, with the help of its consultants, will use a contractor-financed campaign to to prevent the better argument from gaining a fair hearing at all.

We saw this same strategy in 2000 with Measure Y, again in 2006 with the Parks and Pasture Assessment District, and we'll see it in the coming months with a costly school bond that will again enrich the district's contractors and election consultants without the same job-saving impact a carefully directed parcel tax would.

Below: CUSD Consultant Collecting from Claremont Taxpayer


As we said they would, the CUSD board is proposing a $95 million bond. And as we correctly predicted, there are no specified projects that money would be used for. The board's resolution (agenda item XI.B.1) only says the money will be used for school renovations, repairs, and upgrades. They didn't dare give a list of school sites and the projects for each facility because then they could be held accountable for where the money really ended up.

Also, approximately $30 million will go right away towards paying off the money still owed on the Measure Y bond. Think of it as a cash-back refi. Ever since the 2008 financial meltdown, those vehicles have been out of vogue everywhere else in the financial world. However, in the CUSD world, they're still very much the rage.

As with the last school bond, the district promises a citizen oversight committee to make sure the money is properly spent. Rest assured, contractors and consultants, that committee will stocked with reliable Claremont 400 supporters to ensure there will be no questions asked. Every con needs its schill, after all.

CUSD has many needs. But this is a $95 million giveaway with no guarantees that the actual needs of students and teachers will be met. As we said, it is a con job, pure and simple.