Claremont Insider: Soon Parted: Hello Fools, Goodbye Money

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Soon Parted: Hello Fools, Goodbye Money

We and others in the community have been bothered by the fact that Measure CL, the Claremont Unified School District's $95 million November bond measure, has no identified projects in need of all that money. Perhaps we missed something.

We looked again at the bond resolution the CUSD board approved on July 22, and noticed that buried deep in the ballot proposition language was a sentence under the heading "Project List" that says:

The District conducted a facilities evaluation reflected in the [Facilities Master Plan] presented to the Board of Education on January 21, 2009 and incorporated herein by reference...

So there is a project list, CUSD just didn't include it for the voters to review easily. We've confirmed through our back-channel sources that it takes more that a bit of effort to see that list. If you are interested in what that $95 million might be spent on, you have to go to the district office on San Jose Ave. and review a several inches thick binder that constitutes the district's Facilities Master Plan, otherwise known as CUSD's wish list.

It's not exactly the most user-friendly way of discovering the district's intentions for the bond. From what district tout Bill Fox said in the Claremont Courier last Saturday, we can expect the bond campaign committee - Fox, Mike Seder, and, direct from Claremont Heritage and the Claremont Educational Foundation, the ever-reliable Lee Jackman - to cull through that binder and pull out enough poll-friendly projects to add up to $95 million.

But there's no guarantee that whatever bond project list CUSD's campaign cooks up will ever be completed. Buried in the fine print at the end of the resolution is a sentence that says:
In the absence of State and/or Federal matching funds, which the District will aggressively pursue to reduce the District's share of the projects' costs, the District will not be able to complete some of the projects listed above.

The school district doesn't tell you, however, that it will fail to really pursue State and/or Federal matching funds as it assures us it will. Even in failure, the district has a design. If the district opts out of state funds, it also doesn't have to worry about accountability in the form of state spending guidelines and audits. That's why no CUSD official will speak of any bond oversight that is independent of the district. Instead, CUSD and its board will handpick a "citizens committee" with a safe majority of its friends to ensure the bond money is spent as they see fit.

The district's secretive project binder and that fine print at the end of the ballot proposition language demonstrate just how far CUSD Superintendent Terry Nichols, the CUSD Board of Education, and the bond campaign committee are willing to go to conceal the truth of the bond from the voting public. They are betting that if they bury enough qualifying clauses in dense enough prose, they will be able to fool enough voters into supporting this bond.

The Fine Print
(Click to Enlarge)
As you can see above, it's not exactly an open, clear, well-articulated plan. It's really more of a lawyerly, CYA paragraph designed to inoculate the school district from blame when the money dries up long before their yet-to-be-released project list is completed.

The first sentence in the fine print, for instance, says, "The listed projects will be completed as needed." In other words, if needed we will decide that items previously deemed priorities really aren't necessary, and we'll use the money on other unspecified things - whatever we want.

As we've pointed out several times in the past, in the case of CUSD's $48.9 million Measure Y bond one of the main projects listed, La Puerta Elementary School, wasn't ever built because it was deemed unnecessary. Instead, the district threw the money away on such urgent, non-educational items as Claremont High's track and football facilities.

With Measure CL, the district also seeks to circumvent its own bond language. On the one hand, the last paragraph states, in all caps for extra emphasis:

But just a couple sentences above that, the full ballot language claims:
Proceeds of the bond may be used to pay or reimburse the District for the cost of District staff when performing work on or necessary and incidental to bond projects.

So, how does one square those two contradictory statements? The district doesn't intend to. That last paragraph is merely something they are required to include but which they will never follow. If you need further evidence, check reporter Landus Rigsby's article on page four of the August 11 Claremont Courier. Rigsby wrote:
"Any [extra] money that comes in [from the state] or money from a bond needs to go to salaries," said CUSD Director of Human Resources Kevin Ward. "If the district receives an increase in base revenue higher than what is [currently] projected, then before the district can spend on other things, a certain percentage will go back to salary restoration for all the employee groups."

Ward was simply being honest, even if what he said ran counter to the bond's ballot language. The bond money will be used for salaries, no matter what the district says during the bond campaign. Now, it would be illegal for the district to simply take the money and dump it directly into teacher salaries. So CUSD will wash the money through its project list and pay for the salaries that way rather than asking employees to make some temporary sacrifices to help balance the district's budget.

No one thing irks us more than the disregard and contempt the district, its board of education, the teachers' union, and the bond campaign committee have for language, bending it as they please to suit whatever momentary meaning they require. They intend to use words not to further their educational mission but to manipulate the public into supporting something they've intentionally misrepresented as a needed facilities repair and construction bond.

It's a poor example for the very students they claim to care so much about, and no wonder why, even under the best of circumstances, Measure CL supporters and their highly paid campaign consultants will have a fight ahead of them. Without the truth on their side, it'll take a lot of doublespeak to get the 55% of the vote needed for the measure to pass.

Of that sort of talk, though, the district and its various representatives have no shortage. These are, after all, many of the same people who gave us Glenn Southard, the Parks and Pasture Assessment (lost 44% to 56%), Preserve Claremont, and failed city council candidate Bridget Healy, the retired Claremont assistant city manager who's currently raking in $166,700 a year from a CalPERS pension.

Given the stagnant economy and the level of joblessness and foreclosures in our area, they'd be wiser to ask for far less and sacrifice more before asking property owners to pay off a $95 million debt. They'd also be well advised to stick to the truth in the future if they're going to ask people for that amount of money.

(In the coming days, we'll have more on that debt, how much larger it will be than the district has portrayed it, and how the bond proponents intend to finance the bonds over the next 55 years - far enough in the future for all of them to be safely dead long before the extent of their folly is revealed.)