Claremont Insider: Gaming the System

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gaming the System

The Insider's investigative arm has been hard at work trying to confirm some information that came in over the transom last week regarding the $95 million Measure CL bond the Claremont Unified School District put on the November ballot. The information would seem to confirm our original hunch that the bond proponents will be following a very familiar game plan for the bond.

You may recall that one of the problems with school district's the bond measure is that they're asking for a boat-load of money without explaining how they intend to spend this. In its bond resolution's fine print, CUSD said that if you wanted to figure out what the projects in question are, you had to consult the district's Facilities Master Plan, an inches thick black binder kept at the school district's offices.

We're hearing that the Master Plan contains a copy of the following document in a pocket on the inside of the binder:

This document is a campaign consultant's template for a generic school bond campaign. It's a concern because CUSD isn't supposed to be be campaigning in favor of the bond. Yet, there the campaign template is, or was, sitting in a district binder. The district will no doubt have the document removed as quickly as possible, but as you can see above, we still managed to obtain a copy.

But is the district really planning on using this road map in the present campaign? It certainly seems thus so far. There are some noteworthy suggestions listed in campaign consultant's document - suggestions the Yes on Measure CL campaign seems to be following closely.

For instance, Item 4 on page 1 of the template suggests that campaign funding should include the district's vendors and that the amount of money those vendors donate can be tied to their volume of business. In other words, the district is saying, "If we've got you under contract, you should kick in a dollar amount commensurate with the amount of work (and money) you're getting from us.

Item 4 Vendors who do business with the District also see value in helping the District become stronger in serving the children of the community. District staff members working on their own time can help in this area. See Exhibit 2. Note that contribution goals can be set per volume of annual business with [the] District [emphasis added - ed.]

As with CUSD's 2000 Measure Y bond, the district's surrogates will hit up those vendors for big donations. In 2000, the bond supporters raised over $80,000, the majority of which came from CUSD vendors. They'll do so again and will go over $100,000 if they stick to their usual methods.

On page 7 of the document, we see a sample ballot argument. Precisely the same talking points the Measure CL proponents have used are listed in this sample:
  • The bond will "provide funding for Classrooms and Facilities." Our district keeps saying that, even though they have admitted that the money will go towards restoring faculty health benefits and reimbursing the district for the time spent by its staff on bond projects.

  • None of the funds will be used for administrator salaries. The Measure CL bond resolution approved by the CUSD board makes exactly this statement. Yet, as noted, they have also publicly said the money will go to salaries and benefits.

  • Reasonable cost - $1.00 a day. Isn't this the $365 campaign that was pushed by the Claremont Educational Foundation? Say, if you happened to get on the bus with your $1 a day donation, and then the district succeeds with the bond, you could easily end up paying double that $365 once the bond assessments are made.

  • The district has created a bond oversight committee to ensure bond funds are spent wisely. Yes on CL committee leader Bill Fox keeps reminding people of that oversight requirement. But he keeps leaving out the part about the last bond oversight committee failing to keep accurate tabs on how the money was spent.

Beginning on Page 11, the document lays out a direct mail campaign with estimates of the voter turnout and the number of votes needed to win. The targets of the mailings are divided into six groups, each with its own specific content.

A couple points of interest here. The district's consultants recommend mailing to property owners a message that gives each homeowner an estimate of their individual taxes for the bond based on county assessed values. The property owner mailing, though, has a ceiling set on the assessed property values. In the consultant's example on page 14, they said they will exclude mailing to voters with assessed value of more than $150,000.

In these times in Claremont, that number might be closer to $400,000. The consultant appears to be trying to conceal how much their bond will affect people with homes above a certain value because they might find the bond prohibitively expensive.

The district's consultant doesn't stop there. Page 14 also lists a mailing to be sent to non-property owners. The pitch to them? "Measure A [the example in the report] costs you nothing." So, despite the district's claim that renters end up paying for the bond, they tell those renters the opposite. The district tells them to not worry, they'll get a pass on any bond payment, so they should vote for it. It's a free ride, the consultant says.

We also learn that the mailings don't come cheap. The consultant's projected budget on page 10 lists $31,000 for direct mailing and, naturally, $30,000 for the campaign consultant. Those two budget items account for $61,000 out of a possible $80,000 in campaign contributions for the hypothetical bond election.

The consultant also recommends getting other local officials (council members, county supervisors) on board, as well as police associations, business men, contractors, vendors, unions, and realtors.

All of this gets us back to the fact of the district having a sample campaign strategy and spending plan stored in its Facilities Master Plan binder at the district office. By law, the district is supposed to refrain from directly participating in campaigns. Yet, let's not forget that the district paid $25,000 for the consulting company TBWB Strategies to conduct a poll that was turned over to the Yes on CL campaign, which consists of the same three people that earlier this year worked together on the district committee that came up with the recommendation to go forward with a bond.

Is it any wonder why we keep thinking the bond was always the goal and that district all along intended the TBWB poll to be used to poll-test bond arguments with voters? CUSD seems to skate awfully close to the line of electoral propriety with some of their actions.

According to the district highlights for its 6/3/10 meeting, the president of the teachers union is even listed by name in support of the district's bond idea:
Superintendent Nichols provided background on the Bond/Parcel Tax Survey Committee and asked Jared Boigon, TBWB, to provide an update on the Bond/Parcel Tax Survey. Mr. Boigon shared highlights from the survey report and committee members, Lee Jackman, Bill Fox, and Mike Seder provided additional background and outlined the committee’s recommendation. Joe Tonan, incoming CFA President shared the association’s support for the committee’s recommendation. Staff and Mr. Boigon responded to Board questions and the Board requested more specific information on a timeline and next steps and requested a defined project list that included staff and committee priorities. This item was for Board information and discussion and no action was taken.

Their actions underscore the reality that CUSD, its board, the bond campaign committee, and the leaders of the Claremont Faculty Association seem to unlimited quantities of contempt for voters, for the spirit of the election rules they should be obeying, and for truth in their campaign statements.

You don't have to be a super-sleuth to get to the heart of the bond matter: If the district is already acting in less than forthright ways before the bond has even been voted on, why should anyone trust them with the $95 million they're asking for?