Claremont Insider: More Tangled Webs

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More Tangled Webs

We got to wondering about that fellow Jared Boigon, who figures so much into the Claremont Unified School District's bond plans. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed that decisions that ought to have been made in public by the CUSD Board of Education have instead been made by the district's Measure CL bond campaign committee and by Boigon.

The bond committee by law is supposed to be distinct and separate from the school district, but as we've pointed out, the three people heading the committee, Bill Fox, Lee Jackman, and Mike Seder, are the same three people CUSD appointed to work with Boigon when the district was deciding whether to pursue a parcel tax or a bond.

Those same four are now working on the Yes on CL campaign, and Boigon is operating as a campaign consultant. We first saw Boigon in June, when he and his company, TBWB Strategies, were under a $25,000 contract to CUSD to conduct polling research to test voter support for both a parcel tax and a bond. Incidentally, the word is that TBWB had a $10,000 cost overrun, so the district really ended up paying them $35,000 - not exactly a good start for a district accused of misspending on its last $48.9 million Measure Y bond.

Boigon appeared again after we and others noticed that the bond resolution lacked a specific project list. When the district voted on that resolution, board member Jeff Stark (photo, left) falsely stated that they could not come up with a list until after the board voted on the bond language. The district approved the bond resolution with no discussion of the projects Measure CL's $95 million would pay for.

As we discovered, rather than trying to figure out what projects needed funding and what the total cost would be, CUSD simply figured that the maximum they could seek was $95 million and went for that. After they were publicly called on that point, they scrambled for a couple weeks and then had Boigon come up with what the Yes on CL campaign calls a project list:

Bond 2010 Site Detail 08-26 FINAL

The document, however, fails to give a school-by-school cost breakdown, and Yes on CL committee member Bill Fox lamely explained in the Claremont Courier that any more details would have to wait until after the bond election. This is the typical CUSD response: We have a secret plan to spend the money, just trust us.

This hearkens back to Jeff Stark's earlier prevarications, and came up again a letter to the Courier by former Claremont Faculty Association president Dave Nemer. Apparently, the district and its surrogate Nemer feel you, Mr. and Ms. Voter, just aren't smart enough to hear the details right now. Let them think for you.

And who created the district's project list? None other than Jared Boigon of TBWB Strategies.

So we have an unelected consultant, working with a campaign committee handpicked by the school district, designing an after-the-fact spending list to justify the district's blank check to itself. This all fails the smell test on so many levels - the lack of public discussion, the district's involvement in the bond campaign, the district's and the campaign's misrepresentations justifying their decisions, and so on.

What's emerged is a mostly notional, consultant-created spending scheme designed to justify obtaining as much money for CUSD as is allowed by law. The money, in turn, will flow out to the same vendors and contractors who will be the campaign's largest donors.

This wastefulness, as well the blatant and false emotional appeals to voters by the Yes campaign - save our kids, save our schools, save our teachers - will inevitably lead to a $95 million debt whose final costs will more than double once the interest and principal are paid off. As with Claremont's 2000 Measure Y, the money will be spent long before Jared Boigon's project list can be completed.

Boigon won't care. He'll collect his paycheck and move on, and the damage he's inflicted will be so far off in the future that, even if someone called him on it, he'll have already banked the tens of thousands he'll have billed the district and the bond campaign for.

Don't believe us? Consider the Contra Costa Times' followup stories to the Mt. Diablo Unified School District's $348 million Measure C bond, which voters approved in June. Like our district, MDUSD hired Jared Boigon to oversee a poll looking at financing options. With interest, the bond will end up costing $1.8 billion.

After the election, the public learned that there was at least one other option that would have shaved $1 billion off that amount, but MDUSD refused to release Boigon's poll, which was evidently the basis of the decision to pursue Measure C. Like the Claremont school district, MDUSD played hide-the-ball, according to a 7/26/10 article by Contra Costa Times reporter Teresa Harrington:

District General Counsel Greg Rolen has repeatedly denied access to the voter poll results, saying they are exempt from state laws requiring release of public documents because they were paid for with private campaign committee funds.

Even though some board members received the results, Rolen said the results are not maintained by the district, "and the interest in withholding these documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosing them."

One MDUSD trustee told the Contra Costa Times that if he had known of the second, cheaper financing option, he would have considered it, but he wasn't given a chance to review Boigon's poll:
Trustee Dick Allen, who did not receive the poll results, said he was not aware that the board had two options. In hindsight, he said the board should have discussed the two tax rate choices and allowed the public to weigh in.

"I think we should have made the decision with all the transparency that we can provide," he said Friday. "I think in the long run, it's always better to be honest."

In May, the Times asked the consultant who helped the district with the bond campaign whether the poll specifically asked voters to choose between two tax rates. He didn't give a direct answer.

"I don't think it's a fair question," said Jared Boigon, of TBWB Strategies. "I think you have treated this to unfair scrutiny, more than any other bond in Contra Costa County."

The similarities between Mt. Diablo and CUSD continued with the lack of a bond project list, as Teresa Harrington reported in a separate article:
The district's list of improvements to be completed with the bond was not finalized until April, too late to be included in the voter information pamphlet. Voters approved the bond based on a general list of districtwide improvements that was not school specific.

The district posted its final list of projects online, but did not include detailed descriptions or costs for work to be done. This caused some confusion in schools regarding what the money would ultimately pay for.

Further, as with Claremont Unified's Measure Y, contractors donated generously to MDUSD bond campaign and expected to be rewarded for those donations:
Chevron Corp. donated $10,000 to a $348 million bond measure four days after it was approved by voters in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District last month.

The San Ramon oil giant donated the money to the Measure C campaign as a San Francisco subsidiary, Chevron Energy Solutions, continued to press the district to award it a $68 million, no-bid solar contract that would be paid by the bonds. District leaders told the company this week they planned to seek competitive bids on the project.

The MDUSD bond campaign raised well over $200,000, and the list included several five-figure donors in addition to Chevron, all of whom could have potentially profited from the bond's passage as the CC Times' Harrington reported on June 7:
$25,000: Seward L. Schreder Construction, Redding
$25,000: Northern CA Carpenters, Regional Council Issues PAC
$25,000: IBEW 302: Community Issues PAC
$25,000: Stone and Youngberg, San Francisco, bond underwriters
$15,000: George K. Baum and Co., Denver, bond underwriters
$15,000: Sheet Metal Workers International, Local Union No. 04
$15,000: Brandis Tallman LLC, San Francisco, bond underwriters
$10,000: Diablo Education Association Political Account

Harrington goes on to note that the MDUSD bond campaign's expenditures were equally large, with the bill from Jared Boigon's TBWB Strategies coming to $85,176.

If one examines these school funding elections closely, one sees the same pattern repeated again and again. Schools in need of short-term cash manipulate public perception with Chicken Little claims of impending doom. Using money from the very people will profit from the bonds, school districts like Mt. Diablo and Claremont hire highly paid professional consultants like Boigon to run the campaigns. The goal is not to raise and spend money efficiently and only where it is needed. Rather, it is to get voters to approve as much borrowing as possible, no matter what the long-term costs are to the community, and to funnel that money back to the parties who funded the campaign.

The lie at the heart of all of this is the premise on which these bond campaigns are built: Bond X is the only solution to our schools' problems. As the Contra Costa Times noted, there are much cheaper alternatives, but then those are never really explored.

These sorts of manipulations should be a public scandal, but they never rise to that level because, unlike with the City of Bell, the reporters who cover school districts tend to fall into a kind of journalistic Stockholm Syndrome and end up identifying with the subjects of their uncritical stories. For years, the Claremont Courier's Pat Yarborough epitomized this phenomena, and Courier reporter Landus Rigsby, who currently covers Claremont schools, seems set on continuing in this tradition.

It's no wonder, then, that all the parties supporting the Claremont school bond (Jared Boigon, the school district, the Claremont Faculty Association, the Yes campaign) are confident that voters are stupid enough to pass the bond. With local media unable or unwilling to question anything presented by the district and its surrogates, lies become facts, and the final costs get deferred long enough for the responsible parties to successfully evade any accountability.