Parents weigh in on school district spending
on October 15, 2015
Children from several schools were playing in the Richmond High School cafeteria the other evening. For the kids, this evening was an outing. For their parents and educators, it was an opportunity to convince the West Contra Costa Unified School District that their school deserves a share of $200 million in bond authority remaining to be divvied out.
More than 100 attendees sat at cafeteria tables to fill out surveys and share concerns about school facilities. Lisa LeBlanc, the district’s associate superintendent for operations, explained this meeting is part of a series designed to get feedback for the school district’s master plan on future construction.
“We’re going to hear a lot of concerns out there because there is a lot of commitments and expectations that have been made out to the community,” LeBlanc said.
Wearing matching fluorescent-yellow T-shirts, more than 70 people representing Lake Elementary showed up to call attention to what they described as negligence.
Lake Elementary School in San Pablo is one of 15 district schools in the planning and approval process for construction. Projects were put on hold while the district develops its master plan.
Patricia Ponce, a San Pablo community member with strong ties to Lake, voiced her frustration with how the district put off rebuilding the school.
“We were told that it was going to be rebuilt, we had plans, we had an architect, we had colors,” Ponce said. “We had everything set up for our new school, and then they came back to us and said, ‘The money is on hold.’”
The long-range facilities master plan is the district’s most recent since 2007. It will map out how WCCUSD should use remaining bond funds and which of 21 “priority schools” will be first in line. The district hopes to present its plan to the school board in March or April of next year.
According to district documents, priority schools are defined as those which have had “no or minimal improvement work done to them since they were originally built with minor exceptions for maintenance and site improvements.”
Darden Architects and Integrated Planning and Programming, LLC were contracted for about $300,000 in bond funds to develop this plan, according to LeBlanc.
LeBlanc said the district is collecting data on school facilities, like student capacity or the facility’s age, and then asking the community what data is the most important.
“It’s what’s the most important thing for our students to be able to learn,” LeBlanc said. “Is it the condition of the facility, the bricks and the mortar, is it the environment being hot or too cold?”
After collecting all the data and community input, a prioritization committee will make recommendations for the school board, which will make the final decision on the master plan.
Since 1998, WCCUSD has passed six bond measures totaling $1.6 billion. Last year, voters rejected another bond measure, tasking the West Contra Costa Board of Education with stretching its remaining dollars and reconsidering past objectives.
Another community meeting at De Anza High School on October 6 attracted about 70 parents. Elizabeth Smith from El Sobrante sat with other parents whose children attended Valley View Elementary. Valley View, like Lake Elementary, went through a planning process but was put on hold.
Smith questioned why Valley View had to go through this prioritization process when it already has construction plans and designs. She also questioned the school board’s management of bond funds.
“We have done everything we’ve been asked to do,” Smith said outside of DeAnza as her children played nearby. “We’ve passed all the bonds that have to do with rebuilding our schools. So we’ve been told in the past that means the money is there, now the money isn’t there. So where did the money go?”
Antonio Medrano, community activist and former West Contra Costa school board member, agreed the board didn’t manage bond funds well.
“There was no control on the cost overruns,” Medrano said, citing the former board’s attitude toward approved construction cost increases and changes.
An extensive performance audit of West Contra Costa’s bond program released in June 2013 raised concerns about the district’s use of funds. The document cites contract amendments due to district standards as a possible reason for increased bond spending during the 2012-13 audit period.
“Changes of this nature and of this extent are directly related to inefficiencies and result in increased costs,” the audit reports. “Work that is caused to be changed after it is completed is always more costly.”
Todd Groves, the board president, said he understands the community’s frustration with the current state of the bond program. He explained things like construction costs or the district’s ability to borrow funds were external influences that dwindled bond funds. Groves also referenced decisions made by the former school board.
“We could have built sparer facilities, much more humble facilities for lower costs – that was not a choice the district made,” he said. “The design standards were put in place very early in this program, and we’ve stuck to them.”
The district will continue developing its master plan, but it isn’t ruling out future funding options, like another bond measure or a possible 2016 statewide ballot.
The last of six meetings was Wednesday, October 14, at El Cerrito High School.
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