Election season is upon us. City council members, including me, had been busy writing ballot arguments for some of our six ballot measures. The final deadline for those arguments was Friday, August 19. Since then candidates have shifted the focus to their own campaigns.
The basic information about city initiatives, council and school board candidates is posted on the city website, so there is no reason to repeat that information here. The basic numbers are five candidates for three spots on the council, and four candidates for two spots on the school board. Here are the links for the ballot measures and arguments, and the candidate statements.
The November ballot will be huge, with federal, state and local candidates to choose from, and 17 state, three county/regional and six City of Albany initiatives. Please study the ballot materials before the election, and please don’t suffer from terminal ballot fatigue before you get to our local initiatives.
Of the six Albany ballot measures, two are housekeeping items, two are new taxes, and two are important measures that do not have immediate financial implications. I suggest you vote in favor of the two housekeeping measures, which eliminate our redundant civil service board and modernize some language in the city charter.
Of the two tax proposals, I support the parcel tax for sidewalk repair, but I do not support the soda tax. On the final two measures, I support modifying parking requirements, but I do not support eliminating term limits for school board members:
MEASURE N1 Modifying parking requirements. Vote YES.
MEASURE O1 Sugar-Sweetened Beverage General Tax. Vote NO.
MEASURE P1 Sidewalk Repair Special Parcel Tax. Vote YES.
MEASURE Q1 Various modernizing charter amendments. Vote YES.
MEASURE R1 Dissolve the city’s Civil Service Board. Vote YES
MEASURE S1 Remove term limits for the AUSD School Board. Vote NO.
As you’ll note from the ballot argument signatures, keeping term limits (NO on S1) is favored by many former school board and city council members, including two former AUSD board members, two former mayors, and two people who have served on both the council and school board (Allan Maris and myself).
As readers of this blog know, I have been disappointed with the lack of thoughtfulness of the current ASUD board in regards to the financial consequences of measures B and E. This lack is probably the best evidence I could muster in favor of term limits. So I find it ironic that this board is trying to eliminate them.
This post will focus on new information I’ve discovered on the bond measures campaign, and why it reveals that ending school board term limits are a bad idea. Please keep in mind as you read this that I am referred to the school board as a whole. I have always had good relations and warm regards for board members as individuals, but sometimes the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
Measures B and E are like the Middle East. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they get worse. Many Albany residents first realized there was a problem when this story broke in the local newspaper.
With the campaign is over, the Yes on B and E committee was required to file final State of California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) forms. These are the final accounting of campaign revenues and expenses. I requested a copy of the documents from the city clerk, since it is public record.
Setting aside the $100 used to open the bank account by the campaign treasurer, campaign revenues were $47,200 — all of from outside architects, law firms and other contractors. Not a single dollar was raised inside Albany. By comparison, a typical city council election four years ago cost between $4,000 and $5,000, with most of the money coming from Albany residents. The YES on Measures B and E campaign spent 10 times that much. (For the record, here are my FPPC forms from my 2002 school board race.)
I’ve included a list below of the B and E donors. You can find the addresses from the FPPC forms:
|Total Funding for Measure B&E
|Dervi Castellanos Architects
|Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost
|Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo
|Hibser Yamauchi Architects
|Apodaca Mechanical & Consulting
|Ninyo and Moore
|Jeff Luchetti Contruction
|Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
|Dutra Cerro Graden
|Derivi Castellanos Architects
The largest contribution, $6,000, came in two pieces from Derivi Castellanos Architects, which notes on its web page that one principal, Steve Castellanos, “served as State Architect, leading the Division of State Architect (DSA) from 2000-2005, where he developed many key relationships that continue to benefit our clients.”
Kim Trutane was the leader of the Yes on Measure B & E campaign. She is a school board candidate and self-described homeowner/school volunteer and Marin PTA president. How did she have the clout to extract donations from these major players in school construction? Here’s where it gets interesting.
First, when it was considering its rebuilding projects, AUSD hired a consulting firm that specializes passing bond initiatives and parcel taxes for schools. Its name is TBWB. According to their website, “TBWB helps you package and pass a ballot measure to meet your needs.” TBWB is a for-profit firm, as are the big contractors who donated to the measures B and E campaign.
Once the school board decided to go for Measures B and E, a campaign committee was formed, which is technically a separate legal entity. The Yes on B and E campaign also hired TBWB. With the firm’s help, the campaign solicited $47,200 from big contractors. Of that money, $45,506 was paid back to TBWB. A quick review of the TBWB website reveals that one of the partners lives in Albany. I think it’s fair to say this partner is a friend of the school board.
The Measure B and E campaign was bought and paid for by the big contractors, with the help of TBWB. That would explain why the bond measures were so large, since the bigger the bonds, the more business there will be for the big contractors. Although the school board and the campaign are technically separate, every member of current board tacitly approved of this by endorsing Trutane’s candidacy for the school board.
To get a school construction bond passed in Albany, you don’t have act this way. I was active in passing the 2008 Measure E swimming pool bond. The campaign spent a little less than $2,000. The campaign literature was home spun and printed in Albany. The legwork was done by the AHS swim team and their parents (disclosure: My son was the co-captain of the swim team at the time). We needed a supermajority (two-thirds of the vote), and we got 72 percent.
So it appears that that the school district, the school board, The B and E campaign, TBWB and the big contractors have all been having a private soirée — one that Albany voters weren’t invited to. That’s too bad, because the voters will be picking up the tab, which will be, according to the state ballot pamphlet, $185.5 million.
Perhaps the current school board members (and the candidate they have endorsed) can tell the voters of Albany just what the heck has been going on here. Once again, I am disappointed. This behavior violates every commonly understood notion of conflict-of-interest. And the sad thing is that it’s not just Albany.
What Albany has experienced is a new school bond campaign model. This model features campaign consultants and big contractors (all for-profit firms) working together to find willing school boards to maximize the size of bond campaigns. It has become a big business in California. It has even spawned its own anti-tax protest movement in conservative Southern California (here and here).
Many of these same forces are at play in the statewide Proposition 51, an $9 billion school bond proposal. It is opposed by the governor, and by editorials in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Diego Tribune. It is supported by the San Francisco Chronicle and the League of Women Voters.
But why is this a problem, you ask. Doesn’t our school district really need our support? Can’t they use the money? There are two issues. First, the excessive funding for these projects has an opportunity cost. More money for capital projects means less money for something else.
The real issue is how the participation of self-serving, profit-driven consultants and contractors distorts the allocation of resources both within school districts, and between school districts and other public projects that also benefit our children — like parks and athletic programs.
It’s important to keep in mind that the school district doesn’t have a monopoly on caring for and educating children. This is especially true in the summer, when programs for children can cost several thousand dollars. A lower tax bill for families with children would allow them to spend more money on summer enrichment programs and other out-of-school activities for their kids.
Second, I doubt if our little school district has the expertise to handle either the cash flow or the project-management problems what will result from these bond measures. There are some bad actors out there in the construction world. Shoddy work, frivolous change orders and padded bills can be hard to detect.
Some big school projects have become very big disasters. School districts can get in over their heads quickly. A good example is the Los Angeles Community College District, which was the subject of an investigative report by the LA times.
The expose starts with this statement, “Classrooms were overcrowded. Athletic facilities were decrepit. Seismic protections were outdated. Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to remake the nine campuses for the 21st century. They promised rigorous oversight of costs and quality. But a Times investigation found that tens of millions have gone to waste.”
Some of that sounds familiar right here in Albany. Let’s hope ten years from now all of it doesn’t sound familiar.
In asking the voters to support Measure S1 and end term limits for the school board, some school board members have cited their expertise and the need for continuity. I’m unimpressed. When I look at measures B and E, I detect tunnel vision, a sense of entitlement and a failure to take conflicts-of-interest seriously.
I have no doubt that all of our school board members are well-intentioned. But, speaking from my own experience on the school board from 2002-06, I suspect some of our school board members are tired and need a break. I can think of no better reasons to vote NO on measure S1 to keep school board term limits in place.