As the Manteca Bulletin noted, Manteca Unified Superintendent Jason Messer graciously thanked me for my past input on the upcoming school bond telling me, “We have been listening.” But after examining the actual bond language on the district’s website, I realize that “listening” and taking my suggestions for bond accountability to heart, are unfortunately, two distinct things.
I regrettably will be unable to support the 2014 school bond measure its current form because it lacks true accountability, having less restrictions and more loopholes than Measure M, the previous school bond. It’s crucial to balance flexibility for district administration with real accountability to the public. Yet the construction and wording of the proposed bond is more flexible than an Olympic gymnast and so broadly outlined, allowing wide interpretations, that actual accountability is nearly impossible. No money can be spent on administrative or teacher salaries, but that is one of the few mandated restrictions.
Appendix A, the full text of the bond measure, has a section on accountability requirements which states, “provisions in this section are specifically included in this measure in order that the voters and taxpayers in the district may be assured that their money will be spent wisely.” Assurances are given that “detailed facilities needs of the district” have been identified (details not shared with the public), yearly financial and performance audits will occur, and Independent Citizens Oversight Committee will be formed, and “proceeds from the sale of the bond will be used only for purposes specified in this measure”.
Sounds reassuring until we explore how meaningless these words are. The Bond Project List asserts, “Bond proceeds will be expended on modernization, renovation, acquisition, construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation and/or replacement of school facilities of the Manteca Unified School District, including the furnishing and equipping of such school facilities, located or to be located in the Manteca Unified School District at the following sites and properties.”
There follows a list of every existing school (elementary, high school, and B-tech campus), four future schools and district office facilities. The text outline example of “the type of projects to the financed at the above listed sites and properties.” But in classic “loophole” language disclaims, “specific examples included on this list are not intended to limit the generality of the broader types of projects described and authorized by this measure.” Translation: The district can do other types of renovations/modernizations and upgrades as it sees fit.
There’s a section authorizing the district to build new schools at the existing school sites: Ethel Allen Elementary School, South Manteca High, Tara Elementary, and Rustic Elementary. But the public already spent $5,617,873 of Measure M funding in purchasing the Ethel Allen site and another $3,700,000 of these funds for the South Manteca High site. Expecting the public to finance new bond money on these same projects that were paid for with previous bond money seems like double-dipping. What’s the tag line? “This time the projects will really be completed.”
Appendix A ends with this “escape hatch” clause, “The district is unable to anticipate all unforeseen circumstances which may prevent some of the projects listed above from being undertaken or completed.” This loophole is unnecessary since none of the school sites has any of the provided examples specifically attached to them. We aren’t told what is going to be repaired at McParland or upgraded at Joshua Cowell, or what safety issues will be addressed at Sierra High. We are only given vague outlines.
Realistically, would we even know if a project was abandoned? This lack of accountability is my main objection to the new bond. At least the previous bond (Measure M) specifically did many of its modernization projects such as, “replace Manteca High School field house,” “convert old faculty room into school office expansion (Sierra High),” convert old band room into classrooms” (East Union High),” “convert old portable multi-purpose room into classrooms (Sequoia), and modernize the libraries and classroom wings at Shasta, Nile Garden, French Camp and New Haven schools. These were concrete projects that had verifiable results. In contrast, while I don’t need to know the color of replacement carpets, the new bond provides no measurable specifics, per school, at all.
My biggest complaint about Measure M was that the flexibility for district staff in project decision far outweighed meaningful accountability to the public. Lathrop High was allowed to go $13 million over the initial Measure M budget projection because there were no restriction on how much bond money could be spent on any individual project. The new bond repeats this troubling flaw.
According to the district’s 2014 Capital Facilities Master Plan, health and safety, major and deferred maintenance and modernization and upgrade costs (excluding parity with other schools) total $175,807,726 at the existing elementary campuses. High school and specialty school projects (excluding parity) total $146,615,540. New school construction costs total another $188 million. Without state funding (which is currently non-existent) the promoted projects on the new bond measure obviously can’t be all completed. Yet if the bond focused solely on health and safety and major and deferred maintenance costs, every existing school could have these needs and issues addressed within the bond’s budget. Such projected costs at the elementary sites total $92,744,156 and $34,945,971 at the high schools, leaving $31 million of the $159 million new bond measure to be spent on selected modernizations and upgrades.
To achieve this, however, would require absolute accountability where each site was rigorously held to its projected bond funds cost and not allowed to exceed it. Unfortunately, the district has chosen to avoid real accountably, reluctant to stand behind its words and intentions without wavering or equivocation. No amount of bond money can gloss over that.