In response to articles published Tuesday regarding the Mt. Diablo school district’s refusal to release voter poll results, some people have asked: “Why do you care?”
If the board and Superintendent Steven Lawrence had been open and transparent about the fact that the ballot measure would extend the 2002 Measure C tax rate — before trustees unanimously voted March 9 to put it on the June ballot — it might not be a big issue.
The reason the poll is important is because it was cited by Lawrence and some trustees to justify the board vote after the fact.
The district appears to want to have it both ways: it wants to claim voters chose a more costly option overall to fund the $348 million bond measure, but it doesn’t want to show the public any poll results that back up that claim.
Linda Loza is a district parent who quit the campaign committee because she disagreed with its decision to seek a bond measure that would be paid back over 42 years, instead of a parcel tax. Although Loza was involved in campaign committee discussions about polling, she said she wasn’t told that voters were presented with two tax rate options.
“I never saw or heard a choice presented, not in the funding committee meetings, not in the poll results I was given, not at the community meetings Superintendent Lawrence held, and not at the March 9, 2010 board meeting,” Loza said. “I am curious as to how the bond structure was decided, who made the decision — because it was certainly not the full bond committee — and what information they had when they made the decision.”
Trustees Gary Eberhart and Sherry Whitmarsh told me in May that they based their decisions to extend the tax rate on the poll results. But now, Whitmarsh says she never received the poll results and Eberhart says he can’t find them. And although the board received a PowerPoint presentation about the results, it didn’t include any questions about tax rates.
Both trustees have also said they had discussions about the poll results with Lawrence and/or the campaign consultant. However, these discussions did not take place in public.
As I have reported, Lawrence failed to mention that the district intended to extend the tax rate in his staff report or in the resolution the board approved. Also, trustees never discussed two options before voting, so the public was unaware that different tax rates had been considered.
The tax rate statement, which detailed the district’s intention to extend the 2002 cap of $60 per $100,000 in assessed value, was not completed until two days later, on March 11.
When I questioned Lawrence in May about the district’s process for putting the measure on the ballot, he insisted it was typical of California school districts.
“There were public discussions about the merits of the bond,” he wrote in a May 10 e-mail. “Polling data was brought forward which discussed the tax rate extension. The resolution was brought forward and approved by the board.”
The problem with these statements is that the public discussions didn’t mention the tax rate extension. Neither did the polling data in the PowerPoint presentation. And neither did the resolution or the ballot measure.
Lawrence also asserted in his e-mail that it was common for districts to submit their tax rate statements to the registrar of voters subsequent to adopting a resolution.
“In fact, the board does not have to approve the tax rate statement,” he wrote. “This is a standard process, a process I followed previously, and a practice I understand is universally employed.”
This practice would have been fine if the district had disclosed the tax rate extension in any of the other documents reviewed by the board on March 9. And as it turns out, Mt. Diablo’s practices are not as universal as Lawrence contended.
The Martinez school district approved its tax rate statement July 19, when it voted on a resolution to place a $45 million bond measure on the November ballot. And when the Acalanes school board approved its $93 million bond measure July 21, 2008, it included the tax rate extension in its staff report.
Both Acalanes and Martinez also included the tax rate extension in their ballot language. The San Mateo Union High School District, which is considering a bond measure, also appears to have asked voters in a recent poll if they would support a $287 million measure “without increasing current tax rates,” as part of the proposed ballot language.
In addition, Mt. Diablo’s project list is not as complete as it was in 2002, when improvements for each school were included in the voter’s pamphlet. In 2010, the district included a general list of improvements in voter materials and posted school lists online that do not include costs or detailed descriptions of work to be done.
During a May 27 interview, Assistant Superintendent Pete Pedersen told me that “Technology Classroom Enhancements” was a “catch-all category” that included money for a variety of projects each site wanted.
He later told me that a chemistry lab at Clayton Valley High and an engineering and design center at Northgate High were included under this category. Northgate Principal John McMorris also said that Pedersen told him he had a list that included the design center, even though it didn’t appear online.
But after I asked to see the more specific lists yesterday, Pedersen informed me they don’t exist.
“There are no more ‘specific’ lists,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The programmatic details for each site won’t be completed until after each sites projects are fully developed individually and programmed during the design phase.”
I have sent him another e-mail asking how soon this will happen.
Pedersen told me in May that the board will prioritize work to be done, with a projected a five-year construction timeline. I have asked how the board will be able to prioritize projects, if the lists aren’t complete.
Voters have agreed to spend up to $1.8 billion over 42 years for the school upgrades.
Do you believe the board has been transparent about its decision to structure the bond as a tax rate extension? Are you satisfied with the lists of projects be be built?