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Sunday, March 7, 2010

City Hires Big Guns To Move School Center Forward

Voters To Be Asked To Pass Expensive Fall Bond Initiative

By Mr X and Brian Donahue

When the pricey dream of a combined school campus crashed into financial reality and public skepticism, Emeryville officials changed course.

Rather than explaining how a $125 million building for the district's 770 school children would elevate academic performance, they hired a team of political consultants to sway public opinion. Or maybe they aren't trying to sway public depends on which city council member you ask.

Part of the city's recent additional allocation of $1.35 million for "soft costs" associated with the "Emeryville Center of Community Life"---a combined elementary, junior high, high school, recreation center, library, health clinic and senior center ---is a contract with Oakland-based political consulting firm, The Lew Edwards Group. The move was roundly criticized by Councilman Ken Bukowski.

Under the contract, the firm will hold "living room conversations" with voters and conduct a series of polls to ascertain how much tax money city voters are willing to part with in exchange for new facilities. Presumably, ambitions will be scaled back to match the public's limited enthusiasm. All of this work will culminate in a November 2nd bond initiative for Emeryville voters.

The firm has been very successful at winning parcel tax campaigns and school district bond measures up and down the state. It is also no stranger to Emeryville. Lew Edwards took city tax money to help convince voters to extend Emeryville's utility tax and they also ran campaigns for both Ruth Atkin and John Fricke.

While public schools and seniors should be among every municipality's top priority, some have asked if combining so many functions under a single roof is a wise concept. There is a reason other cities do not combine students from age five to 18 on a single campus with senior citizens as well.

At a meeting Thursday of the City/Schools Committee, a body combining the city council with the school board, Mr. Bukowski questioned the consultants polling plans. After Catherine Lew, one of the firm's founders told members, "the surveys will not be designed to achieve a particular outcome," Mr. Bukowski appeared dumbfounded. "Why are we hiring this firm,?" he asked. Mr. Bukowski said that outside expertise should only be sought to help improve the likelihood that voters will approve the funding for the Center of Community Life. "We're hiring a professional company (to help with this) because we want to achieve a positive outcome," he told colleagues.

Councilwoman Jennifer West took umbrage, stressing that residents desires are sacrosanct. "We have to really listen to the community," she countered.

The 'living room conversations' will take place at various locations throughout the city, occasionally in actual living rooms. They are being touted as a chance for residents to express what they think about the proposal. Responding to criticisms that the Center of Community Life keeps marching forward regardless of community input, the committee indicated it will be a time for them to just listen.

The Committee has charged itself with helping to get ECCL built and has been working to get the price tag for the project under $125 million.

If the cost were to come in at that figure, it would equal $162,337.66 per pupil. About 40 percent of the district's students live outside of Emeryville. If non-Emeryville students are excluded, the per-pupil cost climbs to $270,562.77. These figures do not include the extra maintenance costs associated with a larger facility and these costs would be an ongoing extra expense.

Originally, ECCL was planned for the massive AC Transit yard on San Pablo Avenue. After efforts to move the bus yard to Oakland ran into opposition, officials looked into the efficacy of seizing PG&E's facilities on Hollis Street.

After that plan foundered, officials announced that ECCL would be built on the grounds of Emery High School. If a new structure is built, officials might abandon the Anna Yates elementary school where a $9 million renovation project was completed last year.

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