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Our View: Hart bonds needs oversight

Posted: January 31, 2009 10:32 p.m.
Updated: February 1, 2009 4:59 a.m.

Will the William S. Hart Union High School District keep its promise? Will it empower a true oversight committee to keep an eagle eye on the district as it spends $300 million in new, voter-approved school construction funds?

Or will it do what it did when the voters OK'd $158 million in 2001 and appoint an oversight committee in name only while running millions of dollars over budget?

The question is high on the minds of critics of the latest bond measure because the time is nigh for the district to form the Measure SA Citizens' Oversight Committee.

By law, the school board must appoint the new committee within the next two months. (Technically, it's 60 days from Jan. 21, when the board formally recorded the election results.)

But it's the wrong question.

It's not for the school board - or the school administration - to decide.

State law is clear.

State law allows the oversight committee to decide for itself how aggressive or lackadaisical it will be in fulfilling its watchdog duties.

Somehow we've been led astray since 2001. Somehow we've gotten the idea that the school board gets to determine the role of the oversight committee. Maybe we've attended too many school board meetings.

Shame on all of us for failing to track the many changes the Legislature made to the Education Code in 2000.

That's when the voters approved Proposition 39, the constitutional amendment that lowered the requirement for passage of a school construction bond to a 55 percent vote.

Previously, school bonds needed a two-thirds vote.

Teachers, parents and school officials were understandably frustrated when their bond measures pulled better than a 50 percent majority but still failed because they couldn't hit 66.67 percent. So they lobbied
Sacramento and asked the voters to lower the threshold.

To make the November 2000 initiative palatable to fiscal conservatives, the Legislature adopted Assembly Bill 1908 that summer. AB 1908 said, among other things, that if a school district wanted to fly a bond measure up the (proposed) 55 percent flagpole, it would have to appoint a citizens' committee to oversee the expenditures.

School districts that want to skirt an oversight committee still can go for 66.67 percent, but that's not a good gamble and nobody does it.

(And if they say they're following the 55 percent rule and they actually pull 70.75 percent, as Hart did with Measure V, they're stuck. They must appoint an oversight committee.)

Just what does state law say about these oversight committees?

For one thing, it says who shall serve: "One member shall be active in a business organization representing the business community located within the district; one member shall be active in a senior citizens' organization; one member shall be active in a bona fide taxpayers' organization."

Another two must be parents of children in the school district; one of these must be active in a parent-teacher organization or school site council. No school district employee or contractor may serve.

State law defines the committee's responsibilities. The committee's job is to make sure all bond money is spent on the construction projects identified in the bond measure, and that none is spent on teacher salaries or other operating expenses.

The next section of the law is key.

It says what the citizens' oversight committee "may" do.

It doesn't say what the school board may allow it to do.

It says the committee "may" choose to do any or all of five specific things:

1. Review copies of an annual performance audit;

2. Review copies of an annual financial audit;

3. Inspect school sites to see first-hand that bond moneys are spent properly;

4. Review copies of deferred maintenance plans.

We've seen these first four with the Measure V committee. It reviewed annual financial reports that showed where the money went after it was already gone.

It's provision No. 5 that's the kicker. Here's what else the law says an oversight committee "may" do:

"5. Review ... efforts by the school district ... to maximize bond revenues by implementing cost-saving measures, including, but not limited to, all of the following:

"A. Mechanisms designed to reduce the costs of professional fees.

"B. Mechanisms designed to reduce the costs of site preparation.

"C. Recommendations regarding the joint use of core facilities.

"D. Mechanisms designed to reduce costs by incorporating efficiencies in school site design.

"E. Recommendations regarding the use of cost-effective and efficient reusable facility plans."

Mechanisms. That means procedures. That means planning. That means involvement on the front end.

It means making sure the district is putting plans in place to keep consultant fees to a minimum before the consultants are even hired.

It means making sure the district is developing plans to control the cost of grading before the grading contracts are put to bid.

It means participating in plans to maximize the use of buildings; active involvement in the design phase; and making sure building plans are reused whenever possible.

All up front. Before the work is done and the money is spent.

The Measure V committee started asking the district about these mechanisms in August 2006 - five years too late. Most of the money was long gone.

None of this is news to the Hart district. Its law firm - Bowie, Arenson, Wiles & Giannone - has sent white papers to school districts up and down the state since 2001, spelling it all out.

Why the Measure V committee, which formed in 2002, didn't seem to know how aggressive it could be is anyone's guess.

Had the committee exercised its legal authority, would Measure V have run $42 million over budget, failing to fund the 10 new schools it promised? We'll never know, but we certainly can't afford a repeat.

On Aug. 4, 2008, Bowie and company filed the formal paperwork with the county, calling for the Measure SA bond election. In the cover letter, in boldface type, the attorney wrote: "Please note that this election is called pursuant to the provisions of Proposition 39 and its related legislation."

Thanks to its attorneys, the Hart district knows full well that in exchange for a 55-percent vote requirement - which was fortuitous, because Measure SA fell short of 66.67 percent - it would have to appoint an oversight committee that could choose to examine the district's bond-related construction activities under a microscope, starting from the earliest planning stages.

The question isn't what the school board will "allow" the oversight committee to oversee, because the ball isn't in the school board's court.

The question is: Will the school board appoint smart people who care as much about our tax dollars as they do about education, and who will insist on fulfilling their oversight role to the fullest extent allowed under the law?


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