Claremont Insider: Been There, Done That

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Been There, Done That


As we've noted in the past, the Claremont 400's tried and true tactic to pushing some item on their private agenda through to completion (see the Claremont Unified School District's Measure CL) is to create a false sense of urgency, i.e., "if we don't do things this one way, chaos will ensue."

As we saw last November, there was no stoop too low for CUSD's board and their surrogates to take in order to try to get their $95 million bond passed.   The Yes on CL campaign outspent its opponents by more than $154,000 to $5,000, using money mostly raised from contractors who would have benefited from the bond.  And it still lost by a margin of 60.4% to 39.6%.

A rational person would conclude that, given such a decisive loss, there was something wrong with CUSD's claims about the necessity of the bond and that the No on CL campaign's arguments (no real accountability, conflicts of interest, the lack of any specific projects for the money, and the district's mismanagement of the previous bond, to name a few) resonated with voters.

One would have thought that the district's board would have sat down with the No on CL campaign and tried to get them on board to incorporate some of their ideas into managing CUSD's fiscal problems.  But this being Claremont, land of magical thinking, the lesson learned for CUSD was that they just need to wait and continue to let the district's infrastructure degrade so they could come back to voters in a year or two and say, "See, we told you it was bad."

It's a self-created crisis, of course, but CUSD's gang of four - Board President Jeff Stark, Vice-President Beth Bingham, Clerk Mary Caenepeel, and member Hilary LeConte - are committed to the idea that they know best.   So, get ready for the Return of CL.


The only difference next time will be that, having changed the school board's norms to allow members to speak out on issues, CUSD will take a more active role in shaping the election message.  Exhibit A in our prediction for the bond-to-be-named-later is the fact that the Yes on CL campaign, whose treasurer is former school board member and Claremont 400 stalwart J. Michael Fay, continued to raise money after the election.

Below, courtesy of a reader, we've posted the Yes on CL campaign's 2010 Year-end Form 460 filing, showing post-election contributions and expenditures.   Notice that the campaign reported cash contributions of $182,155.69 and expenditures of $154,768.39, leaving a balance of  $27,387.30.

More significantly, the campaign received two post-election contributions, one small donation of $100 on 11/16/10 from Nancy Osgood, and one $10,000 whopper on11/12/10 from the architectural firm Flewelling & Moody, which advertises itself as "architects for schools."  

In the interests of truth in advertising, Flewelling & Moody should be marketing itself as "architects for school bonds."  The post-election CL campaign donation was F&M's second, bringing the firm's total or 2010 to $20,000.

Here's actual Form 460 (click on the icon to the right of the "S" on bottom of the frame to enlarge):


This business of artificial crisis creation is by no means limited to Claremont.  Brinksmanship allows the extremists in a negotiation in to eliminate the middle ground and get their way. Writer James Suroweicki has a column in the August 1 edition of the New Yorker in which he argues that the current federal debt-ceiling crisis represents nothing more than a cover for politicians unwilling to make the tough decisions that real, constructive fiscal change will require (i.e., higher taxes, cuts in spending and services, or some combination of the two):
...politicians like the debt ceiling: it allows them to rail against borrowing more money (which voters hate) without having to vote to cut any specific programs or raise taxes (which voters also hate).

You might think that there are benefits to putting negotiators under the gun. But, as the Dutch psychologist Carsten de Dreu has shown, time pressure tends to close minds, not open them. Under time pressure, negotiators tend to rely more on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. They don’t consider as wide a range of alternatives, and are more likely to jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. Time pressure also reduces the chances that an agreement will be what psychologists call “integrative”—taking everyone’s interests and values into account.

In fact, by turning dealmaking into a game of chicken, the debt ceiling favors fanaticism. As the economist Thomas Schelling showed many years ago, “It does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, coolheaded, and in control of oneself” when it comes to brinksmanship. It doesn’t, in short, help to be President Obama. That may be why all the deals that have been taken seriously this season rely much more heavily on spending cuts than on tax increases: the deals represent Republican priorities, because the Republicans seem to be more willing than the Democrats to let the country default. It’s not pure craziness that’s rewarded—when some congressional Tea Partiers said that they wouldn’t vote to raise the ceiling under any circumstances, they became irrelevant to the conversation, since no compromise would make them happy. But recklessness does equal power: that’s why Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, and John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, have implied that they’re willing to go over the cliff (in part by suggesting that their fellow party members will force them to) but also that they can be persuaded to do the right thing.

That same group psychology is why, in the face their overwhelming Measure CL loss, the CUSD board has refused to be truly inclusive (to use their own term) and has behaved as if members of the public representing alternate viewpoints don't exist.   The CUSD board rules imperially, ignoring its own conventions at times (more on this later), and solemnly issues dicta that have no bases in reality while our district's fiscal problems worsen.

It has been ever thus in our fair city, and so it shall remain.  So sayeth our school board.