Spending plan okayed, though school bond may not be

Spending plan okayed, though school bond may not be

Michele Ellson
Alameda schools

School board members okayed a spending plan Tuesday for a proposed facilities bond, though the board may ultimately decide not to place the bond on the ballot in November.

The board voted 3-2 to approve a new bond spending plan that would see the school district spending about $85 million on its two main high schools – half of what board members originally considered – and the rest on middle and high schools. The plan board members originally considered would have the district spending almost all of the $179.5 million it could seek on modernizing its two main high schools.

But four members of the board have to sign off on a bond measure for it to go to the ballot, something two – Trish Herrera Spencer and Barbara Kahn – have said they can’t support.

Kahn said that while she agrees school facilities need to be repaired and updated, she doesn’t trust the district to spend bond proceeds the way the board wants them spent. She accused Superintendent Kirsten Vital of pressing a list of initiatives in spite of board members’ wishes and of limiting the board’s access to information.

“For me, the primary issue is the political issue, this control. This board has not been able to control a lot of stuff that goes on,” Kahn said. “I simply cannot accept moving forward unless there is an iron clad arrangement whereby this board controls everything.”

But other board members said Kahn and Spencer, who echoed Kahn’s concerns and said more conversation about priorities for a bond is needed, should set them aside in order to carry out the board’s charge – to ensure students get the best education the district can provide.

“Our kids in this community need us now. Not six years from now,” board president Margie Sherratt said. “It’s our job to put aside any distrust, but to continue a genuine, authentic conversation.”

The district’s bond counsel, David Casnocha, said bond ballot language could be broad enough to give the board time to gauge the community’s priorities for schools fixes and control over how the money is spent.

Casnocha said the ballot measures he typically writes list the types of projects the money would pay for – like roofs, or safety improvements – instead of listing specific projects at specific sites. And he said it can include language that requires allows board members to stop allowing bonds to be issued if they don’t think the money is being spent properly.

Trust in Vital has been a major thread running through the deliberations over the facilities plan and bond proposal. Concerns over whether the board can craft a bond that would get the support of voters or even the parents and teachers whose time and money would be needed to get it passed have also been part of the subtext of the discussion.

A third concern is the impact that putting a bond on the November ballot – or waiting until a later date – could have on reauthorization of the Measure A parcel tax, which sunsets in 2018. Schools advocates who have actively campaigned for the district’s funding measures have said they don’t think they can get a parcel tax and a bond passed on the same ballot, while Kahn said she fears that a failed bond measure this fall could spell doom for the parcel tax.

“Unless we’re able to bring the community together around a common vision on our schools, I believe the parcel tax will not pass in two years,” she said.

Compared to the packed council chambers and theaters that greeted schools leaders during a series of parcel tax efforts and other major issues the school board has tackled in recent years, attendance at the district’s facilities and bond meetings has been sparse.

Fewer than a dozen people came out Tuesday to ask the board to put the bond on the ballot. Others came to ask that it include funding for solar installations and to ask the district to consider a plan to build a single high school for all of the Island’s students.

“There is no right answer. There is no perfect answer,” said Anne DeBardeleben, the president of the Alameda Association of Realtors and an active participant in school parcel tax campaigns. “Whatever we have is the right answer. The only wrong answer is to do nothing.”

The spending plan approved by the board would fund structural upgrades for Historic Alameda High School and modern science classrooms in its East Wing, along with modernization of classrooms at Encinal High School. All of the district’s schools would receive technology and security upgrades, along with “critical” fixes to mechanical and electrical systems and roofs. Schools that are expected to see enrollment growth would get new classrooms.

The board had originally considered a plan to do a fuller modernization of the high schools, but that plan was rejected on a 2-3 vote.

The board will decide whether to move forward with a bond measure on June 24.

Comments

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Wed, Jun 11, 2014

I would comment that adding solar panels to schools does not improve the quality of a single child's education, but that would imply that this bond measure has a snowball's chance in hell of passing.

I have yet to find a single person who voted for or worked on previous parcel tax initiatives that wants to give this school board/Kirsten Vital $170 million to spend.

I believe the real purpose of this bond measure is to fail in order to justify school closure/combining. Then, the district could claim that they gave the voters a chance to improve schools and now the only option is to get rid of smaller neighborhood schools.

Honestly, that's just a guess but if not that then the runner-up rationale is that no one at the district or most of the school board has ever talked to a single pro-schools voter and they're just out of touch. Hmmm...

Submitted by P Barnes (not verified) on Wed, Jun 11, 2014

Last night, members Spencer and Kahn put their personal agendas ahead of what's in the best interest of our kids, our teachers, and our community. They should be ashamed.

Submitted by David Kirwin (not verified) on Thu, Jun 12, 2014

Last night members Spencer and Kahn made the only choice they could while respecting their obligation as elected school board members. I am very grateful they remember their position is to represent the voters, not AUSD administration as most of the current BOE members normally do in lockstep. Perhaps because too many of them were AUSD administrators.
This bond plan has been just a waste of time and mony. The AUSD administration seems so far out of touch with reality it is hard to remember they are supposed to be educated people. The fact they are making important decisions impacting the education of our city's kids is perhaps the biggest reason local public education seems to be on a steep decline.

I was the only parent at either of the two facility master plan meetings at Lincoln Middle school. There was a third meeting, actually the first, but the public was not notified until after the meeting. What I learned at those meetings was that the information given to the architects of the facility master-plan was another waste of taxpayer money. It was a regurgitation of a spending plan over a decade old. Most of what was on the list had been done by the 2004 Measure C Facility Bond. It including things for Lincoln like adding 6 new portable classrooms, and redesigning the drop-off zone. Maybe we keep redoing the same work because it is easier to hand out an old list at a meeting than to find the time to learn what if anything is really wrong with the school facilities. When it was realized at these two facility master plan meetings how much of the list was completed or irrelevant (Or just stupid - like replacing all the school lockers and exterior doors, and fire alarms, etc, simply because they are not the current district standard, - but judging from the doors and lockers they work fine and are probably a better quality than the district could find at a reasonable cost today.) The meetings then became staff wish-listing, having little or nothing to do with the list of needs Superintendent Vital said was so important from the beginning.

Lets review the last AUSD facility bond - Measure C. It passed in 2004 and was promoted as a $63M bond that would not raise taxes, and would gain an additional $23M if passed in State and Federal matching funds. What we got was somewhat less because some of the matching fund sources were used up before AUSD qualified for them. From the $63M, AUSD spent $23M on Ruby Bridges school in the heart of the new development where Naval Air Station housing on the west end of Alameda was replaced. This always seemed like a huge gift to the developers who in my world view should be required to cover the community costs of the developments they are profiting from building. City Council always refers to the "no cost to Alameda" development, yet AUSD habitually donates borrowed money at the expense of local taxpayers, like they did again in the recent diabolical land swap boondoggle where one BOE member called it "sharing the AUSD largess". Amazing they do not have enough funding for our schools, but plenty to give away.

I was a member of the Measure C bond oversight committee for 8 years and I am equally guilty as the other members for not publicly reporting when we learned of spending problems like the problems the audits pointed out year after year, or the fact that under Vital we did not meet as a committee for almost a year and a half, despite that we had wanted to continue meeting quarterly as we always had done previously, and the law requires annual meeting as the very minimum. My only request for the committee's final public report was a review of the repayment plan for the bond. This the Administration agreed to, but it was not included in the final public committee report, or any other public committee report. And the public should know the administration wrote all of those committee reports, all 8 years. And only the final one was shared and reviewed by the committee prior to public presentation. That's what public oversight does - we did not even go to the sites to insure work was done, we just matched the numbers AUSD gave us to the way we were told the money was supposed to be spent. It felt lousy to hear some of the LMS staff reporting some of the "fixes" made things worse.

Because of the way former School Board member David Forbes had the whole Measure C bond measure structured to sell to voters -(back-loading the repayment plan) - it is my estimation Alameda property owners now owe between $160M to $170M to repay the borrowing of $63M in 2004/2005.

With that kind of debt growth of bonds issued 10 years ago, it should scare every Alameda home-owner with the "spend before thinking" attitude this school administration exhibits and how much debt AUSD would thrust upon the community with a new $190M bond. Together with what is still owed on the 2004 bond, I'll wager AUSD is happy to have the city's property owners eat 3/4 of a $Billion bucks to do partial work work on our schools. And walls. floors, windows and paint don't educate our kids. I winced when Superintendent Vital was quoted on the front page of the paper this year saying all AUSD facility equipment needed to be replaced because it is not economical to have different generations of technology. For me, that quantified just how out of touch with reality this superintendent is, and just how far out her pipe-dreams are. She and her facility director should begin educating themselves and the MOF crews on the values of proper maintenance rather than replacement of systems offering unneeded bells and whistles and more ways to fail, or more complex control units than current staff understands. Or perhaps in this case, the AUSD maintenance and operation workers should be explaining to the BOE what is really needed to keep our school facilities, as reasonably clean, comfortable, well lite spaces for learning. They may have better credibility than AUSD's top administrators whose only solution to any issue is to use taxpayer checkbooks to throw money at problems rather than trying to understand how to repair them.