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Why the MDUSD poll and project lists are important

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, July 29th, 2010 at 5:10 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

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?

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  • Doctor J

    No, I don’t believe either the Supt or the Board has been transparent in its decision to structure the bond as a tax rate extension. It wasn’t mentioned in the staff report or in the Board resolution. There was no discussion about the two tax rate structures by the Board in open meeting, so how can there be transparency. I don’t understand how one can make the leap from the written Board resolution to what is being proposed. I am surprised some conservative tax group hasn’t challenged the bond approval in court — I guess there is still time. Seems like a lot of decisions about details have been made outside of the public meeting of the Board.
    As for the projects, you are correct that you can’t prioritize until the list is complete. Pedersen retires September 30.

  • Doctor J

    Theresa, what about the missing emails to be provided by Pedersen ?

  • spaceymaid

    Not only is MDUSD not being completely open about the true cost of the bonds but has conned the tax paying public once again.They did not opt for the parcel because they were sure it would not pass. This school district is rife with unethical adminstrators who are not above breaking the law to cover their own misdeeds.MDUSD will never recover from the present fiscal crisis until they can gain back the trust and respect of its taxpapers.

  • Realia

    All this secrecy and obfuscation by the district is distressing, as is the emerging tone of the MDUSD blog, which now is used as a mouthpiece by a school board member to slam community members who dare to question the almighty district, the Contra Costa Times, and its reporters – by name. MDUSD has rotted from the head down and is bullying and thin-skinned whenever anyone points it out. The same school board members who kissed the unions’ fannies for campaign contributions and other forms of support now attack, belittle, and try to take anything away that they can from district employees. These board members also promised transparency and accountability in their actions to the community, and I think we all know how that went. It’s time to clean MDUSD’s house – from the top down. Lest we forget, there are children and their educations to consider.

  • tharrington

    Post on the MDUSD Voice blog looks back at Gary Eberhart and Paul Strange’s 2008 goals: http://mdusdvoice.wordpress.com/2010/08/01/674/.
    Do you think the new board majority and superintendent have achieved the level of transparency they desired?

  • Wait a Minute

    I hope for the sake of the MDUSD that the residents of this district run candidates against the existing board. Also, that someone (anyone living in the county can do this,but I can’t as I live in the City) make a complaint to the Grand Jury so that they can come in and put these people under oath and get to the bottom of all these scandals.

  • Doctor J

    Theresa, how about a followup article on the 3/09 Grand Jury Report that said: “2. That current Board members be required to attend training or continuing education programs to learn and understand their role and financial responsibilities as elected Board
    members and similar training be a requirement for new Board members.”

  • tharrington

    Regarding the MDUSD blog, the PowerPoint posted by Paul Strange shows that there was no information presented to the board regarding those polled being asked about two different tax rate options. Yet, trustees Gary Eberhart and Sherry Whitmarsh have said there was such a question. This is why I have requested the poll — to see the original source material district officials have cited.
    Gary Eberhart wrote: “When the Board was presented the language to place the measure on the ballot, our staff made a decision to bring to the Board the methodology that places the payments for the new bond at the end of the payments for the original bond. The Board approved placing the bond on the ballot in a unanimous vote of approval.”
    But this methodology wasn’t spelled out in the March 9 staff report, board resolution or PowerPoint presentation. It wasn’t apparent that the board had approved this methodology until two days later, when Paul Strange approved the tax rate statement.
    Also, the district didn’t give the Times the total cost of the bond until April 20 — six weeks after the board voted. Therefore, there was a lack of transparency before the vote, which resulted in a public hearing that didn’t give the public the information it needed to voice opinions about the two options, because they were not disclosed.
    The district’s financial consultant Jon Isom told me the other tax rate option (a new bond at $60 per $100,000) would cost a total of about $800 million (instead of $1.8 billion).

  • Linda

    Thanks Theresa,
    Just wanted to clarify – In your last sentence that should read $1.8 billion instead of million. A billion dollar difference is a lot of money to take from our community and have it never reach our schools or our kids.

  • tharrington

    Thanks, Linda. Sorry about that. I’ve made the correction.