Members of a citizens-oversight committee questioned how the West Contra Costa school district uses bond money to construct or improve school facilities. They raised concerns about the district over-spending its budget and draining funds slated for future projects.
Despite the district’s desire to align projects with the budget, an independent investigation echoed these concerns, calling several of the district’s budgeting practices “high risk.”
Currently, the district has an estimated $362 million available in the next five years for projects such as building new schools or renovating classrooms. But the district has planned projects beyond, which will cost more than $1 billion.
With no bond measures in the works, it’s a number the district cannot afford.
Since the school bond program began in 1998, six of the district’s bond measures were approved by voters, adding up to more than $1.6 billion, according to a 2016 annual report by the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC). However, the latest $270 million measure was defeated in 2014.
Sallie DeWitt is the chairperson for CBOC’s audit subcommittee and one of the members who put together the report. She expressed her desire to keep supporting the district by voting to pass new bond measures. But she also has concerns about how the district uses the funds.
“I voted for every single one of these bond issues until 2014, because I questioned whether or not the district was handling the money right,” DeWitt said during the meeting “And that hurts, because we want our schools to be good for all of our students.”
One of the concerns these community members have is setting up the budget that balances the needs of the schools and the financial constraints. El Cerrito resident and CBOC member Gregg Visineau said the district would increase the established budgets to match the costs, which can lead to over-spending and not being able to finish the projects already started.
“The district would go to the board and say, ‘We need a budget supplement,’” Visineau said. “Things are added on without contracting somewhere else.”
For instance, more than $271 million has been added onto the budget initially approved by the board, across all six bond measures passed to carry out the facilities plan, according to a report drafted by business-consulting firm Vicenti, Lloyd & Stutzman.
The firm started investigating the district in 2015. Its goal was to make the budgeting process more transparent and assess the risk of “fraud, corruption and waste in the bond program,” according to the CBOC. Its conclusions supported the claim that the district increases budgets to match costs, hindering the completion of ongoing projects.
The construction of a new campus for Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, for instance, was postponed due to loss of the Measure H school bond in 2014. The district has spent about $3.8 million to design the building, but the actual cost of replacing the existing campus is estimated to be more than $40.3 million.
The lack of clarity on how the district plans to spend bond dollars is another issue. Anton Jungherr, member of the CBOC and its audit subcommittee, suggested the district needs to do a better job communicating with voters when they ask for money.
“When you go to the voters, you’re supposed to identify in the ballot measure the projects you’re going to build with the bond money,” Jungherr said.
But the ballot measures never cite specific projects that would be built with the bond money. “The only number you’ve got is the total number of the bond,” he said.
When voters passed Measure E in 2012, for instance, the district mentioned various general goals, from upgrades and repairs to classrooms to increasing opportunities for career education. But it didn’t directly point out specific schools that would benefit from the bond money.
According to Visineau, there’s no publicly released plan or public discussion on when the district might ask voters to approve another bond. “That’s part of the reasons why the CBOC wants to raise the issues we’ve been raising,” Visineau said. “Because if they lose again, it will be very bad.”
After the completion of 11 projects last year, the district’s board has approved a $181 million budget for construction and renovations between July 2017 to June 2021. But the possibility of failing to pass a bond measure twice in a row casts doubt on completing unfunded projects afterward.
Lisa LeBlanc, the district’s associate superintendent for operations, insisted that staff doesn’t want to exceed its budget. “If we have a project’s scope that might be above and beyond that budget, we’re going to refine and adjust that scope to align with the budget,” LeBlanc said. “Because it really is a desire of us to be budget-based.”
Despite bond-program obstacles, the district benefitted from the approval of Proposition 51, a $9 billion statewide bond for school-construction projects that passed in 2016. LeBlanc said the district is proactively going after as many dollars as possible from the state.
Some $9 million in state funding has already been approved and will be sent to the district in the next six months.
Joanna Pace, an El Cerrito resident who attended the meeting, was satisfied with the district’s progress. But she said more emphasis should be put on informing the public of improvements, from the perspective of parents and students who are using these facilities.
“The district should keep getting that news out so that they can go to the public and say ‘We need to come to you again,’” Pace said. “The public has been very generous.”
According to LeBlanc, one of the major ongoing projects is the construction of a new Pinole Valley High School campus, and the district is actively updating the status for the public.
“We are involved in communications to the public on a monthly report and providing the Pinole City Council with updates on that,” LeBlanc said. But she conceded that the district hopes to improve at getting the word out. “We do need to get better at talking about what we’ve done over the last 15 to 18 years of the bond program.”
Apart from the ten projects identified on the map above, the district spent almost $400,000 on purchasing and installing surveillance system and access control in the area, according to the report.
Hover over the colored dots for more information. Click on the timeline at the bottom left corner to manipulate the map. Source: West Contra Costa County Unified School District Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee Annual Report 2016