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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Planning Commissioners Reject Colleague's Plea to Save Pedestrian Path

EBI Path Dead, 
ECCL Path Gets a Second Chance
Commissioner "disheartened"

In a unanimous voice, the Emeryville Planning Commission spurned their colleague, Sean Moss as they collectively voted to move ahead with a proposal to amend Emeryville's General Plan to remove the EBI Pedestrian Path tonight.  The path would connect 45th and 47th Street in Emeryville's Triangle neighborhood.
No good.
We have enough of this already, thank you.
The absent Commissioner Moss made an impassioned plea in a letter to the rest of the Planning Commission to not change the General Plan and to retain the path ahead of the vote tonight but the letter fell on deaf ears.  All four attending Commissioners voted to get rid of the EBI path but at least three wanted citizens to know they did so with a heavy heart.  Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Kuemmerle said she was "disheartened to take apart the General Plan" with her vote.  Commissioner Steven Steinberg recused himself because of his home's proximity to the proposed ped path.
Surprisingly, one of the two original neighbor complainants to the path spoke in favor of keeping the path but he said he wanted adjustments made to it to address safety concerns.  The neighbor indicated that the other original complainant also was not in favor of removing the path, creating the bizarre spectacle of the Planning Commissioners one by one voting to eliminate a General Plan mandated pedestrian path against the wishes of the original complainants.

ECCL Path Saved
In another action, the Commission later voted to keep the General Plan as it is and not amend it to remove the so called ECCL Path.  That proposed path connecting 47th and 53rd Street behind the future Emeryville Center of Community Life, is also required by the General Plan but School District officials and some residents at adjoining Emery Bay Village have said they want it eliminated.  The Commission voted 4-1 to keep the ECCL Path and retain the General Plan (Buzz Cardoza dissenting).
The city staff advised the Commission to elimintate the ECCL (and the EBI) Path and amend the General Plan to reflect that.

Both votes; against the EBI Path and in favor of the ECCL Path, will now go to the City Council for final say.

Planning Commissioner Calls On Colleagues to Save Pedestrian Path

Planning Commissioner Sean Moss is challenging his colleagues to disregard a city council move to amend Emeryville's General Plan in order to eliminate a proposed pedestrian path in the Triangle neighborhood.  The challenge comes in the form of a letter where Mr Moss calls on the rest of the Planning Commission to protect the General Plan's Guiding Principles, among which are the requirements to make Emeryville "a connected place" and a "walkable, fine grained city, emphasizing pedestrians."

The city council voted unanimously to eliminate the pedestrian route informally called the EBI Path on December 22, 2012 in an infamous decision reported by the Tattler.  The council received two complaints from adjoining neighbors to the proposed path, pitting them against the rest of Emeryville.  Emeryville's Bike/Pedestrian Committee, an advisory body, voted to save the path in a split vote on February 4th.

The city council will have one last vote to amend the General Plan and eliminate this path after the Planning Commission vote tonight.*  The vote will take place at City Hall at 6:30 PM.

Here is the letter from Sean Moss:

.                         .                         .                         .

Fellow Commissioners:

I regret that I cannot be present at the February 28, 2013 Planning Commission meeting.  However, I have several comments which I would like to relay to you.  This email will focus on my comments on Item V-A (Escuela Bilingue Internacional Pedestrian Path.)  I will hopefully follow this email with comments on other items.  I wanted to make sure that I had an opportunity to voice my comments on this item since I view it as the most important issue facing the Triangle Neighborhood. 

I want to iterate one point at the outset of my comments.  I will return to this point.  However, it is important enough to restate.  The City Council has the ability to require gates on this pathway.  The conditions of approval preclude the Council from requiring gates at the time of construction.  However, once the path is open, the Council can immediately make the case that a security concern exists and therefore require gates. 

As I sat down to review this item, I began with a review of the General Plan in order to asses the consistency of this amendment with the General Plan’s Guiding Principles.  I could not find even one Guiding Principle that this amendment is consistent with.  I encourage the Commission to review these Principles in considering this request.  The Guiding Principles call for “a connected place,” an “enhanced and connected open space network and green streets,” “a walkable, fine grained city, emphasizing pedestrians,” “a diversity of transportation modes and choices,” “a vibrant urban community,” and “a balance of regional and local amenities,” among other things.  The proposed pedestrian pathway will improve all of these areas.  Eliminating the pathway will negatively affect all of these Principles and the overall vision of the General Plan.  The inconsistencies with the Guiding Principles are so blatant, that I would hope that if this General Plan Amendment had been proposed by EBI, that the City staff would have never brought it forward with a recommendation for approval.  In examining the Guiding Principles, I cannot find a way that the Planning Commission can make findings for approval in good faith.  The findings contained in the draft resolution are obviously weak.  Since I could not in good faith make findings for approval I have drafted an alternate draft resolution that makes clear findings of denial based on the Guding Principles of the General Plan.  I have attached the resolution to this email.  Should a majority of the Commission present at the meeting come to similar findings, I hope that you will use this alternative resolution as a model for adoption. 

In addition to contradicting the Guiding Principles of the General Plan, I have the following concerns regarding the proposed amendment.  First, the General Plan was the result of a lengthy public process.  The Steering Committee worked countless hours developing the plan.  Many members of the community provided input.  The result is that we have a General Plan which represents the desired of many diverse stakeholders.  The General Plan enjoys wide support in our community. This support stems from the vision presented in the Plan’s Guiding Principles.  These principles establish the type of environment that our community wants Emeryville to be.  The proposed amendment does not satisfy, and in fact harms, that vision. 

The proposed pedestrian pathway provides an important, and currently non-existent, connection through the Triangle Neighborhood.  In fact, the pathway is the only thing preventing someone from walking from Ana Yates Elementary School to Berkeley without walking on a major street.  With Anna Yates in its current location, the proposed pathway will provide a safer route to school for children who live on 47th and 48th streets.  Currently, this route to school would take children onto San Pablo Avenue, an unsafe route for small children.  The pathway will also provide better access to Temescal Creek Park, which is currently being renovated.  I walk through the Triangle Neighborhood almost everyday and currently I rarely walk on 47th Street because there is no connection within the neighborhood.  I enjoy Temescal Creek Park, but find it unpleasant to walk there on San Pablo Avenue and thus when I reach the end of Salem Street on 45th, I turn around rather than walking on San Pablo Avenue, which is an unpleasant walking experience due to noise, pollution, litter, etc. 

Returning to the issue of the safety of the pathway, it is important to remember that crime is a temporal issue.  Crime rates ebb and flow over time.  However, connectivity and walkability are fixed and perpetual issues.  We will always need to physically move from one destination to another.  Human beings will always prefer the most direct route to their destination.  In this case that route is through a block.  It is not sound public policy to forever preclude the building of this pathway due to concerns over safety in the present time.  Concerns over safety may someday look quaint, and at that time we will hopefully not have forever eliminated an amenity for the community due to safety concerns today.  In addition, safety concerns can be mitigated through good design.  As I said at the outset, the City Council can require gates on this pathway.  The Council was wise in their crafting of the relevant condition of approval.  In order to appease the applicant, who wished to not build gates, the Council allowed for gates to be required in the future if safety became a concern.  This was a prudent action.  It would be a shame to now eliminate this pathway because the Council and/or the Commission feels that the pathway is unsafe before any evidence can be presented to show this.  This pathway is the only physical public benefit of the EBI project.  It will benefit the community and implement the General Plan.  This amendment will weaken the General Plan and prevent implementation of the Guiding Principles.  I doubt if any alterative public benefit could be identified which would so perfectly implement the Guiding Principles of the General Plan.  It for this reason that I cannot make the findings of approval for this General Plan Amendment. 

Sean Moss

*NOTE TO READERS- the asterisk denotes a correction to a previous sentence that falsely claimed that the Planning Commission vote would be the final say in amending the General Plan.  The council will have the final say. -ED

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Emery-Go-Round to West Oakland BART?

The E'Ville Eye, an Emeryville centric blog, is promoting a plan to include the West Oakland BART station in the list of Emery-Go-Round bus destinations.  The route would head south from Emeryville on Mandela Parkway to 7th Street, the location of the popular BART station.
The blog is hosting a poll of readers about Emery-Go-Round use and the idea of including this new destination for their buses.  Emeryville resident Rob Arias, the editor of the E'Ville Eye, plans on presenting the results of the poll to the Transportation Committee at City Hall and the Emery-Go-Round Board of Directors.

The Emery-Go-Round is a free bus service that connects riders to shopping and work destinations mostly in Emeryville.  The bus line is paid for by Emeryville businesses and taxpayers.  As of now, only the MacArthur BART station is served by the Emery-Go-Round.  A new route to West Oakland BART might be added to MacArthur and might supplant it, depending on ridership numbers.

Mr Arias indicated the more people that take part in the poll, the more persuasive the results will be.  Tattler readers are encouraged to weigh in and make their opinions be heard by taking the E'Ville Eye poll.

The E'Ville Eye Emery-Go-Round poll is HERE.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reply to School Board Member Affeldt's Letter

Op/Ed Contributor Brian Carver

Brian Carver’s Reply to EUSD Board Member John Affeldt

I was pleased to receive John Affeldt’s response to my letter to the Tattler because after several years of asking questions and expressing concerns, I felt this was my first experience of an honest effort by a School District Trustee to engage publicly on the issues. A few thoughts in response:

Breaking the Promise about our Tax Bills
John points out that a reasonable growth estimate of Emeryville’s assessed valuation should take into account inflation, re-assessment after sales, and the average growth rate over the last 30 years. I agree. 

However, we should also take into account that a significant part of Emeryville’s past growth has been the work of our former Redevelopment Agency, now abolished by the state. What new mechanisms cities will use given the dissolution of Redevelopment Agencies remains to be seen, but until that time, extra caution about growth assumptions seems prudent. 

In recent years Emeryville has also learned first-hand that a property’s valuation can go both up and down after re-assessment as several of the largest property owners in Emeryville successfully appealed their valuations to the County, wiping millions of dollars of valuation off Emeryville’s books. Now that these property owners have proven a method for lowering taxes, we should expect that others may follow suit, again encouraging us toward cautious growth assumptions.

But our agreement on what a holistic approach to choosing a growth assumption would look like misses the point. The latest bond issued by the School District pushes our community right up to the $60/$100k limit that the District promised not to exceed (and that is dictated by state law). There is no buffer. Since you [Mr Affeldt] acknowledge that there may be additional downturns in the future, as there have been in the past, it is this aspect of the latest bond that is troubling. We’ve spent right up to the limit and now when those downturns come, we are virtually certain to see the District’s promise broken. But, as you say, no one has a crystal ball, so we need not argue about it. I predict the Trustees’ actions have already placed us on a course that guarantees that they will break their promise. Time will tell if I am right.

Long-Lasting Facilities
You note that the current plan is for the Center of Community Life (ECCL) to have a useful life longer than the 32 year 8 month series D bond. This is good news, but overlooks two key points that I believe are more important. 

First, as I have said more than once at public meetings, Emery Unified School District Trustees are trustees in the literal sense because you [and your Board colleagues] hold public property on behalf of the people of Emeryville. By spending our entire bonding capacity on one site, while tying up our ability to issue further bonds for decades, while presenting no long-term plans for the improvement or maintenance of the other two public properties entrusted to you, the Board has behaved irresponsibly. I have been on tours and heard District Staff point out the problems with the facilities at Anna Yates and Ralph Hawley, but because of this Board’s actions we are left with no bonding capacity for decades and therefore little chance of making necessary improvements to these sites. In the future when the Board solemnly announces that it has “no choice” but to sell these properties or hand them over to competing charter schools that would further our District’s enrollment problems, it will be because of the poor choices made by the Board since the passage of Measure J, not because of circumstances beyond their control.

Second, due to one of many compromises caused by our lack of funds for this Board’s vision, the ECCL design has been scaled down to serve at most 800 students, which we nearly enroll now. That number will not remain stagnant for the next 30 to 40 years. We have instead heard Staff and past Boards insist that only with enrollment growth can we reach a size that is fiscally sustainable from an operational perspective. Greater enrollment numbers, we were told, would allow efficiencies necessary to operate, but now we are spending all of our money on facilities for one site that will barely house the current students, while investing nothing in our other properties that could have been turned to for overflow purposes. This is not an irresponsible plan; it is no plan at all.

Buildings Do Not Educate Our Children
You write about ensuring a high quality educational experience and improving the quality of our schools. I share those goals. However, I am continually disheartened by the focus on these new buildings as the key to that quality experience. Teachers teach, and sometimes good facilities can help teachers teach, but the buildings are not going to do it alone.

 "Teachers teach, and sometimes 
good facilities can help teachers teach,
 but the buildings are not going to do it alone."
This is why I am exasperated: over eight months ago the teachers presented a resolution of "No Confidence" in Superintendent Lindo, which had the support of over 90% of teachers in an anonymous vote, and yet the only public action the District has taken in response has been to praise the Superintendent. In the teachers’ statement they wrote that the Superintendent had “created an unprecedented all-time low in staff morale leaving teachers feeling unwanted, devalued, and disrespected” and that the Superintendent had “not authentically involved teachers by systematically and consistently seeking teacher's input.” This was a glaring indicator of an incredibly serious problem with the District’s ability to deliver a quality educational experience, and as a parent, I expected to see and hear about a decisive and swift response from our Trustees. This never happened.

I believe this Board, distracted by this building project, has lost sight of the things that can really make a difference to a child’s education. Yes, our facilities need to be improved, but the number of missed opportunities on the programmatic front and the number of downright backwards things I have observed are too numerous to recount here, but they mostly come down to an over-reliance on these buildings as the answers to our prayers. 

I Never Meet Anyone That Likes Co-Location
My own reasons for preferring that the elementary students remain at the Anna Yates site go well beyond safety concerns with the San Pablo Avenue site. When I speak to parents of future kindergarteners, again and again, they are absolutely aghast when they hear that the District plans to create a K-12 on San Pablo Ave. It’s often not even about safety. Rather, I believe that most parents recognize that children of different ages have different needs, and those needs can often be best addressed in a setting designed especially for them.

"Most parents recognize that children of
 different ages have different needs,
 and those needs can often be best 
addressed in a setting designed 
especially for them."

A recent overheard conversation among parents of some 7th and 8th graders focused on how poorly the needs of their middle-schoolers were being met by moving them to the Anna Yates site. After being promised specialized programming appropriate to their ages and needs, these parents felt the District had failed to deliver and they despaired at their need to find a new school for their children. The District is already doing a poor job at “shared space” and yet we are asked to place faith in its potential at the new site.

“Prudent and Measured” Bonds
You say that the Series D bond, which requires taxpayers to pay $70 million in order to receive $17 million, is “prudent and measured.” We will simply have to disagree about this. I will never be able to see this capital appreciation bond (CAB) as anything other than what California State Treasurer Lockyer called it: a payday loan. There is good reason that the State Superintendent of Schools called for a moratorium on this kind of financing and why the state legislature is considering banning this sort of CAB outright: they are absolutely terrible deals.

Imprudent Actions Can Have Collateral Consequences
You mention that you’d be willing to pay your property taxes even if they went up to $90/$100k of assessed valuation. I would too and my family’s house is probably worth about $400k, just like yours. But what two attorneys would be glad to pay is not the point. The Trustees should abide by the law, which dictates no more than $60/$100k, and the Trustees should keep their promises to Emeryville voters. When public officials betray the voters’ trust, it can cause collateral damage. This District has great challenges on the operational side of its budget and will need the parcel tax renewed in a few years. Many voters may not understand that building and operating funds are totally separate and may instead simply remember that this is the Board that makes poor financial choices. That would be truly devastating for our schools: we’d have expensive buildings that we couldn’t afford to operate. And many voters may blame all of Emeryville’s public officials, so that if the City Council decides it needs to put forward a bond measure for a bike/ped bridge or for other public projects that Redevelopment can no longer fund, they too may face voter skepticism due to the School Board’s actions.

A Way Forward
While some Board decisions cannot be undone, I do not believe our District is without hope. If this Board would change course, or if a new Board were in place, there is much that could still be done to strengthen our schools. The District should revise its plans and explore dividing the available bond funds across at least two school sites. The District should make clear that supporting teachers is a top priority and ensure that it consistently seeks teacher input and improves morale. Community engagement events should change from opportunities for the District to explain its plans to a time to listen to the concerns and ideas of all stakeholders, especially parents whose schedules don’t always allow for in-person attendance at meetings. In general, the entire focus of this District should shift from one in which we are engaged in a great building project to one in which we are engaged in a critical educational effort. Too often it seems like education is taking a back seat to the buildings.


Brian Carver is a parent of a child in the Emery Unified School
District, was the Chair of the Measure J Citizens' Oversight Committee from March 2011-2012, and has been critical of the School Board's insistence on moving the elementary students from Anna Yates to the Center of Community Life site on San Pablo Avenue.  An attorney and Assistant Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, Mr Carver is an occasional contributor to the Tattler.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Normal Expectations Are Shattered at Emery School District

Something Happened at the School Board 

Everyone knows something needs to happen for there to be news.  But news can also occur when the fact that nothing is happening is noteworthy....when a reasonable expectation for something to happen is shattered by nothing happening.  Last Tuesday in Emeryville was different because simultaneously something happened and the normal expectations for nothing to happen were shattered.

What happened and what broke normal expectations for nothing to happen was a School Board member responded to criticism from a citizen.

Rogue School Board member, John Affeldt broke rank and boldly, even unashamedly responded to criticism about School District policy from Emeryville parent Brian Carver.  The response came in the form of a letter to the Tattler causing School District watchers to speak of a thawing, a detente between dissenting citizens and the School District.  While such overwrought talk may be seductive, prudence would dictate waiting to see how this new thing develops.  Still, it's remarkable: something happened at the School Board.  Expectations for nothing to happen were shattered.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

School District Corruption Uncovered: Pay-to-Play

San Diego County Schools = Emery Unified School District

Emery Unified School District; are your ears ringing?

The San Diego based member-supported nonprofit investigative news organization The Voice of San Diego uncovers rampant fraud and corruption among school districts state-wide as they engage in facilities construction projects.  Central to this exhaustive piece of investigative journalism is the connection between big school construction bond campaign donors and the subsequent awarding of contracts by the school districts.
This is exactly what happened in Emeryville; Center of Community Life builder Turner Construction and bond underwriter Caldwell, Flores and Winter were the largest donors to Measure J, the 2010 school construction bond plebiscite and they were both subsequently chosen by the Emery School Board to receive lucrative contracts...a highly profitable payback ratio for them.  The Tattler reported on this likely quid pro quo campaign-donation-for-contract deal last May.
The story below illustrates how this pay-to-play illegal practice has become an epidemic across the State of California as school districts try to rebuild their schools in the wake of State education cutbacks.

Notable also in the Voice of San Diego story is the exposing of the nefarious 'lease-leaseback' no bid contract deals being awarded to construction firms from school districts around the State.  Again, this practice was also struck with Turner Construction by the Emery School Board.  The story shows how these lease-leaseback schemes are ripe with corruption.

Again, Emery shines...but not in a good way: readers should note if Emery were placed on the School Bonds VS Contracts chart featured in the story, it would rate 100% campaign contribution donated to contracts awarded; another shameful distinction.

This Voice of San Diego investigation is extremely valuable for Emeryville residents to see how their school district has finagled and schemed, transparency be damned, to build the schools at the Center of Community Life.

Here then, is the Voice of San Diego story:

On Local School Bonds, Big Donors Often Win Big Contracts

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  • Construction is under way on new facilities at Montgomery Middle School.
The Question
We wanted to know whether major donors to school bond campaigns are likely to win contracts from school districts once the bond passes. 
The Research
We looked at every school bond campaign in San Diego County since 2006, and focused on companies that donated more than $5,000 to campaigns. Then we approached each district to see whether the same companies won contracts from the district that were paid for with bond dollars. 
The Results
We found a significant correlation between major donors and contracts in 13 of the 17 districts we studied. In some districts, that correlation was striking. In the business of bond underwriting in particular, almost every major donation was followed by the company winning a contract from a district. 
Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 5:55 am | Updated: 11:40 am, Wed Feb 20, 2013.

If you donate more than $5,000 to a school bond campaign in San Diego County, you have a good chance of getting the often lucrative contracts that follow.

A four-month Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 San Diegoinvestigation into local school bond campaigns revealed a pervasive pattern: In 13 of the 17 local school districts that have issued bonds since 2006, a significant correlation exists between the major donors to the district's bond campaign, and the companies that won work on the bond program.

Overall, more than 70 percent of companies that donated more than $5,000 to those campaigns also won bond-funded contracts.
And several donors were awarded contracts without going through an open, competitive process. Rather, they were hand-picked by district officials and school boards, or were chosen by a selection process that bypassed long-standing safeguards designed to ensure the public is getting the best possible deal.
Passing a school bond in California takes serious money.
There are consultants to pay and mailers to print. There are campaign signs to erect and robocalls to record. It's a complicated, costly process that can take months of planning and often requires tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"You can't bake-sale your way to a bond measure," Tim Baird, superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District, likes to say.
Luckily for California districts, private companies are willing to spend big cash to boost bond campaigns. Construction firms, architects, lawyers and investment banks all stand to make a lot of money from school districts if their bond measures are successful.
Those donations aren't supposed to influence districts when it's time to start handing out work to finance and build projects paid for by the bonds. School officials and trustees are supposed to pick the firms that will give taxpayers the best deals on loans, financial and legal advice, and construction work.
But in some districts, the number of big donors that also received contracts was striking.
Eight companies donated more than $5,000 each to the campaign for Poway Unified School District's Proposition C, which passed in 2008. Seven of those firms won contracts with the district.
Five companies gave the Oceanside Unified School District's Proposition H campaign more than $5,000 in 2008. They all won contracts to work on the bond program.
Every one of the 12 companies that contributed more than $5,000 to the Grossmont Union High School District's Proposition U campaign in 2008 won a contract from the district.
The subjectivity involved in handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded work, combined with the fact that large campaign donors often end up winning contracts, has government watchdogs, lawmakers and other regulators concerned.
"This is a quid-pro-quo that would be illegal in just about any other circumstances," said former Assemblyman Chris Norby, who introduced a recent bill aimed at barring bond underwriters from contributing to school bond campaigns. "Can you imagine a politician getting money from a company and then saying, 'You're going to get all of my business from now on?' He'd be in jail for sure."
Donations aren't a guarantee of work. At some districts, donations of more than $10,000 did not result in contracts for the donors. Similarly, some of the biggest winners from local school bond programs didn't donate a cent to bond campaigns.
School district officials across the county said donations to bond campaigns have no impact on who is selected for contracts. The staff members who choose which companies win contracts often don't have any idea who has donated money, officials said.
However, aware of the negative connotations of awarding contracts to big donors, some local districts have started to limit the donations they take from firms that will later compete for their business.
And even in districts that have no limits, officials acknowledged the current system is far from perfect.
'A Little Awkward'
Last fall, Scott Buxbaum was trying to get the Proposition C bond campaign for the Cajon Valley Union School District in El Cajon across the finish line. So, Buxbaum, the district's deputy superintendent of business services, picked up the phone.
He called an investment bank that underwrites hundreds of millions of dollars in school bonds nationwide and is a generous donor to local school bond campaigns.
He heard something he wasn't expecting.
The company would only write a check to the campaign if the district was prepared to sign a contract stating that it would underwrite Cajon Valley's bonds, Buxbaum said.
"I told them, 'No, well that’s not going to happen,'" and hung up, Buxbaum recalls. "I felt a little awkward."
When districts issue bonds, an underwriter agrees to buy the whole bond issue for a fee, often hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company then sells the bonds to investors, netting a profit on the transaction.
Bond underwriters, often large Wall Street banks, are typically some of the highest-paid of all the firms that contract with a school district. And they're big donors to school bond campaigns.
Unlike construction firms, which are usually awarded contracts only after a district has considered bids from several companies, underwriters seldom undergo a competitive bidding process to win a district's bond business.
Rather, school boards negotiate bond sales directly with underwriters — they agree on a fee and negotiate over the interest that will be paid on the bonds. In large deals, minute differences in interest rates could amount to hundreds of millions of extra dollars the taxpayers will ultimately pay to borrow money.
That has long concerned some California legislators, bond industry regulators and industry insiders, who worry that underwriters can buy access to bond business with large campaign donations.
In 2011, a bill sponsored by Norby sought to ban underwriters from working on bond programs to which they had previously donated. It died in a state Senate committee.
Norby said the bond campaign process has been "hijacked by Wall Street." Expensive campaigns are now bolstered by Wall Street banks, a far cry from PTA groups going door to door to promote school bonds, he said.
"There's no honest community debate," Norby said.
Two similar bills sponsored by then-state Sen. Roy Ashburn in 2010 also died in a Senate committee.
A letter to Ashburn from Stratford Shields, then-managing director of Morgan Stanley, laid out the bank's reasons for supporting tighter rules on donations.
"There are many cases where there is an appearance that only the contributing firms to a bond ballot election committee have an opportunity to compete to provide financial services for the bonds," Shields wrote.
School bond underwriting across San Diego County has been dominated by six firms since 2006. In that time, those companies donated more than $280,000 to bond campaigns between them. Almost every time an underwriter donated more than $5,000, it won a lucrative contract to underwrite the district's bonds.
In 2011, the underwriter Stone & Youngberg netted $813,751 for underwriting Poway Unified School District's now-infamous billion-dollar bond deal.
Poway's bond campaign committee had received $25,000 from Stone & Youngberg four years earlier.
The Sweetwater Union High School District paid two underwriters almost $1 million combined to buy their bonds in 2008. One of those underwriters was Alta Vista Financial, Inc., which donated almost $50,000 to Sweetwater's bond campaign committee 16 months earlier.
Trading bond underwriting work for campaign donations is against the law, according to the California Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides nonpartisan legal advice to state legislators.
"It is our opinion that a school district or other local agency may not condition the award of an agreement to provide bond underwriting services on the underwriter also providing campaign services in support of that bond measure," Legislative Counsel Diane F. Boyer-Vine wrote in a 2010 letter to then-state Sen. Roy Ashburn.
The bond underwriters contacted for this story did not respond to calls for comment.
A spokeswoman for one company, Piper Jaffray & Co., emailed a statement:
"We will not make, or indicate a willingness to make, any financial contribution as a condition to being retained as an underwriter," she wrote.
The Rise of the Lease-Leaseback
Once a school district has sold its bonds, it's time to hire construction firms: architects to design the buildings, construction managers to oversee projects and general contractors to run each construction site.
Traditionally, a California district would hold an open bidding process for those jobs. It would solicit bids, and choose the company that could perform the work for the lowest price.
That method of choosing contractors is fast disappearing in San Diego County. It's being replaced by a process called "lease-leaseback."
In a lease-leaseback, a school district leases a piece of property to a developer, usually for $1 a year. The developer then leases that property back to the district while it is building on the site. The "rent" the district pays over time for this second lease finances the cost of the project's construction.
This method allows a district to contract directly with a developer without holding a competition to see who can build the project for the lowest price.
While school district staffers usually evaluate various bids before awarding a lease-leaseback contract, this process breaks with longstanding requirements to award public construction contracts to the lowest bidder, said Kevin Carlin, a local attorney.
Carlin is suing the Sweetwater Union High School District over its use of lease-leasebacks. He said the requirement to award a contract to the lowest bidder removes any subjectivity from the decision-making process and keeps the system fair.
And he said the lease-leaseback method has been bastardized from its original purpose — to help districts that couldn't afford to fund projects upfront.
Local school district officials and private construction firms have begun to use lease-leasebacks primarily to avoid awarding contracts based solely on price, Carlin said.
"Anytime you introduce the possibility to deviate from the lowest sealed bid, you introduce the opportunity for influence, favoritism, possibly fraud, possibly corruption," Carlin said.
In recent years, large construction firms that donated to local bond campaigns have consistently been awarded such contracts by local school districts.
In Poway, two local construction firms wrote large checks to the school district's Proposition C campaign in 2008. Douglas E. Barnhart, Inc. donated $49,999. Echo Pacific Construction, Inc. donated $60,000.
Barnhart was awarded two lease-leasebacks. Echo Pacific hit the jackpot — it was awarded 13 lease-leasebacks under the district's bond program.
In Sweetwater, two of the four companies chosen to complete lease-leasebacks for the district's Proposition O bond, which passed in 2006, had earlier contributed more than $5,000 to the bond campaign.
'It's Our School District'
David Dudley's company, West Coast Air Conditioning, donated $10,000 to the Cajon Valley Union School District's Proposition D campaign in 2007. Dudley's family trust donated another $20,000 on the same day.
West Coast Air was subsequently awarded a lease-leaseback to build the Cajon Valley Middle School, the largest project built with Proposition D dollars.
Dudley acknowledged that some local districts have earned bad reputations for their bond practices, but said not all districts, or all companies, should be tarred with the same brush.
West Coast Air has been building projects for the Cajon Valley district since 1962, he said.
"It’s our school district," Dudley said. "My kids have gone through the school district. A lot of the people who work here's kids are in the district, so we’ve had a long, long relationship with them performing work and also on the community side."
School district officials across the county similarly cautioned against drawing connections between donations and lease-leaseback contracts.
Lease-leasebacks offer districts — and taxpayers — all sorts of benefits that don't exist when companies are chosen simply on the basis of cost, said Baird of Encinitas Union.
Just as an individual homeowner wouldn't necessarily choose the cheapest craftsman to repair his home, Baird said, districts should be able to choose contractors based on experience and their prior relationship with the company.
And the notion that districts can be bought for a few thousand dollars is ridiculous, he said.
Avoiding a 'Subconscious Response'
The need to ask companies for money, combined with a district's ability to hand out contracts based on factors other than cost, creates an atmosphere that's ripe for corruption, said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a now-defunct watchdog group in Los Angeles.
"They're not going to say that they look upon donors favorably," Stern said. "But studies always show that there's a subconscious response in these situations."
To avoid even the perception of pay-to-play, some districts have started to proactively limit the amount they will take from donors.
Buxbaum said the Cajon Valley district's 2012 bond campaign placed a $2,000 limit on contributions, specifically to send a message that contracts couldn't be bought.
Other districts haven't followed suit.
The second-largest successful school bond campaign in San Diego County last year was Proposition AA at the San Dieguito Union High School District. The measure asked voters to approve the district selling almost half a billion dollars' worth of bonds.
The campaign contributions list for Proposition AA is a who's who of construction and bond finance firms.
Five companies each donated $25,000 to the district's bond campaign, including one underwriter, three architects and one large construction firm.
If history is any guide, those five companies stand a very good chance of being awarded a contract at some point in the near future.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego and Wendy Fry is a reporter for NBC 7 San Diego. You can reach them at