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Thursday, July 7, 2011

School District Counsel Investigates Possible Misuse of Bond Money

Not On Voter Approved List:
"Fellows Program" May Be Violation Of School Bond Funds

The Emeryville school board may be preparing to violate Emeryville voters trust and possibly the law by spending school bond money on stipends as part of an unsanctioned program according to school bond Citizens Oversight Committee members who wish to remain anonymous. 
At a contentious June 15th meeting, the Measure J mandated committee discussed the possibility that the school board is overreaching and improperly dispersing part of the $95 million school bond on salaries, creating jobs for people who would serve as "ambassadors" to the Center of Community Life, the school/community center project made possible by Measure J. 
The money for salaries plan may be illegal, the committee members said.

Last fall Emeryville voters overwhelmingly approved Measure J, a school construction bond. Voters may recall that the ballot measure provided that a Citizens' Oversight Committee would be formed "to ensure that bond proceeds are expended only on the school facilities projects" that were listed in the bond project list. 
Measure J also provided that annual performance and financial audits will be conducted to ensure that the bond proceeds are expended only on the school facilities projects listed on the bond project list.

On Wednesday June 15th the Measure J Citizens Oversight Committee held its fourth monthly meeting and already a concern was raised by a member of the Oversight Committee that the School Board was planning to misuse Measure J bond funds for projects that are not school facilities projects and are not listed on the bond project list.

voters were told no fewer than seven times
on the Measure J ballot that bond funds would 
only be spent on the project list.

The project that raised this issue is an Emeryville Center of Community Life (ECCL) 'Fellows Program' that would train students and perhaps other community members to be ambassadors for the ECCL project and provide these fellows with a stipend. The project's annual cost would be $72,000, for a six-year total cost of $372,000.

Superintendent Sugiyama said that clearly the voters were told that community engagement will be an integral part of this Measure J project and as a result they feel it is appropriate to use Measure J funds for   any efforts or strategies involving community engagement.

So, this issue goes well beyond the appropriateness of this particular Fellows project, but instead raises a more general question of whether bond funds may be used for any "community engagement efforts" or whether these funds must be strictly used for the school facilities items listed on the bond project list.

The School Board took up this issue at its meeting on June 27th. The staff presentation took a new tack and emphasized that the Fellows Program would allow staff to address not only community engagement, but also partnerships, equity, wellness, and sustainability policies adopted by the City/School Committee earlier this year.
The only public comment was a suggestion that these items, while important, were not on the bond project list and hence were an improper use of Measure J funds and so the speaker suggested that this (and similar) programs should be funded either through the City's $25 million contribution to the ECCL projector through the regular District budget.

Former schools chief 
John Sugiyama:
It doesn't matter 

what the ballot said
The School Board's discussion of this item echoed Dr. Sugiyama's earlier argument, namely that it does not matter that the ballot language of Measure J repeatedly said funds would only be spent on items on the bond project list, because the ballot language also mentions that, if the bond measure passed, the District would adopt a plan for soliciting community input and participation which would include holding meetings,and sending out mailings and notices. 
The Board's view appears to be that this addendum trumps the earlier promises to spend strictly on the items on the bond project list.

The School Board decided in a 4-1 vote to conditionally approve the Fellows Program, on the condition that its legal counsel look specifically at this program and conclude that it was a permissible use of bond funds.

Not discussed by the school board so far is the appropriateness of 'community engagement' being solicited by"ambassadors"; essentially an admission that the real agenda will be propaganda dissemination.    It could be reasonably argued that the voters last November had no intention of approving bond money for a propaganda program, claims of "community engagement" notwithstanding.

The Tattler will continue to watch this issue and will report again when the School District staff announce the conclusion of legal counsel. While we wait, here's Measure J's bond project list for readers to reach  their own conclusions on whether a community ambassador program fits into one of these categories:

a) Construct, furnish and equip leased and owned facilities, including but not limited to classrooms, science labs, and schools.
b) Replace, demolish or renovate District properties to meet current seismic safety standards;
c) Replace outdated portable buildings with permanent classrooms;
d) Construct school-site support including libraries, physical education facilities, multipurpose rooms, food service facilities, health and recreation facilities and play fields for joint school and community use;
e) Upgrade and replace classroom technology infrastructure and improve access to computer systems;
f) Acquire available real property as needed to construct facilities;
g) Provide appropriate and sufficient parking facilities including but not limited to pick-up and drop-off access for students;
h) Provide for costs associated with interim housing as needed during the period of construction;
i) Make additional repairs and upgrades as needed to educational facilities;
j) Perform necessary site preparation/restoration in connection with new construction, renovation, demolition, or deferred maintenance of educational facilities including off-site facilities as required;
k) Address unforeseen conditions revealed by construction or emergency repairs (e.g. plumbing or gas line breaks, seismic, structural, asbestos and other hazardous materials);
l) With written consent from neighbors, mitigate items identified by the Environmental impact Review as appropriate;
m) install energy efficient systems including but not limited to solar electrical systems and related infrastructures.


  1. The whole "Emeryville Center for Community Life" was a horribly bloated, unneccessary project from its origins. When it was clear the citizens didn't want this monstrosity in their midst, the city council & school board mounted a disingenuous ad campaign and marketing blitz as 'Measure J', under the auspices of 'saving' public education (by making it a Cadillac-or-nothing crusade). Now they're holding a mosty empty bag, and have to account to the voters.

  2. Oh, so they're going back on their word that they would not spend any of the bond money for salaries? And they're going to spend it on a propaganda campaign? Who could have guessed? I am shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, that there's gambling going on in the building!

  3. Thanks for reporting on this. Please keep us informed how this is resolved.

  4. The pigs are already gathering at the trough.

  5. I've long had my doubts about the ECCL and I wouldn't trust Ruth Atkin or the rest of them with $1, let alone $600 million....but how much would I receive as a 'stipend' if I were hired as an "ambassador" to help "sway public opinion," by posting pro ECCL posts on this message board? Ruth *call me* wink!

  6. Note to readers-
    The Measure J bond will not cost $600 million. The real cost breakdown is:

    $95 million bond
    + $25 million city money
    + $290 Wall Street finance charges (approx)
    = more than $400 million cost to taxpayers