The following is an Op-Ed by Ben Steinberg of the “No on Measure R” campaign. To view an Op-Ed that advocates in favor of Measure R, click here. Also, click the Contra Costa County Elections site here for more information about the measure.
By Ben Steinberg
At a time when the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) is asking voters to approve a $575 million school construction bond in the March election, the district administration is proposing to WCCUSD trustees that the board make it more difficult for the public to monitor the bond-funded construction program, effectively decreasing transparency and accountability.
At $575 million, this is the largest bond measure ever proposed by the WCCUSD. This comes after the community has already approved six bond measures and now has more than $2 billion outstanding in principal plus interest. The community is obligated to repay these bonds through increased property taxes until the year 2054. The average household pays about $1,000 per year for these bonds. Measure R would add to that figure another $250 annually.
Given the District’s current $48 million budget deficit and past allegations about the controversial school construction program, is now the time for the District to undercut state-mandated bond oversight? If the District administration’s proposal is approved by the trustees, the reduced transparency would mean that the pubic would know much less about how its taxpayer funds are being managed and spent by the District.
State law from Proposition 39 mandates that every district’s bond program must have a Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC). The district’s CBOC wants board approval to update its bylaws, thereby enshrining its independence, effectiveness, and ability to keep the public informed. The proposed bylaw update mostly included actions – like the ability to talk privately to WCCUSD auditors – that the CBOC has already been doing for years.
The CBOC has developed tremendously over the last few years. While this article’s author and others were previously critical of the CBOC, recent CBOC Annual Reports for 2017 and 2018 demonstrate that the CBOC is hitting on all cylinders. The CBOC’s reports are comprehensive, accurate, and fair. They inform the public about what is going right in the bond program and what needs to be improved.
But not everyone is comfortable with this progress. In recent board meetings, the WCCUSD administration led by Superintendent Matthew Duffy and Chief Business Officer Tony Wold have proposed to roll back the oversight that the CBOC has conducted for years. Earlier this week, they made their second attempt at the Jan. 29 board meeting, calling for the tabling of the proposed bylaw improvements. And for the second time, the school board decided to make the decision later. This time in March. Unfortunately, the vote on Measure R comes on March 3 so voters are being asked to decide the fate of Measure R with important questions unanswered.
The WCCUSD is sending two contradictory signals to voters. On the one hand, the WCCUSD is urging voter approval of $575 million in school construction bonds, while on the other the District administration is proposing less transparency and accountability to the public.
Current and past controversies in the district underscore the need for independent oversight. WCCUSD’s bond construction program has experienced significant controversy, culminating in a million dollar forensic audit of the school construction program in 2015. In September 2016, the forensic investigators issued a final report with 112 recommendations. While the District claimed it had implemented 60 of the recommendations, independent auditors found that, in reality, only about 30 had actually been implemented. Furthermore, the WCCUSD has not implemented a single one of the top five budget recommendations form the investigation, according to the independent auditors.
In arguing against the CBOC bylaw amendments, the District administration neglected to mention that the Board’s Governance Committee had already reviewed and approved the changes.
As stated above, the District is currently battling a $48 million deficit that will likely require a substantial number of layoffs and severe cuts to many district-wide services. Although the superintendent knew about the deficit months earlier, it was not publicly disclosed, and continued to escalate without intervention for months. At recent board meetings, trustees Panas and Cuevas have expressed concern that they are not receiving accurate, timely, and full financial information from the District. For this District, transparency is especially critical.
We need strong, independent oversight. Until the WCCUSD is ready to support transparency, accountability, and the public’s right to know, voters should vote no on Measure R — the $575 million bond measure on the March ballot —and even more importantly demand that the District’s board of trustees force the District’s administration to provide the transparently and accountability that this community deserves.
Ben Steinberg is a Richmond resident and the campaign chair for “No on Measure R.”