Editor, Manteca Bulletin,
Proponents of the upcoming school bond, Measure G, created the catchy tag-line “Measure G for MUSD.” My response is “Measure G, don’t deceive me” as in “Gee, why won’t the district design a school bond that’s legally required to actually do what it promotes.”
The following true story explains my skepticism:
Last December I attended the Measure M School Bond Oversight Committee meeting. I was concerned about the district’s proposed plan to trade two Measure M listed and funded school properties worth over $5 million for a non-Measure M project in South Manteca. The district’s bond attorney was there to provide justification for the swap. I explained that the original committee always operated under the premise that Measure M funds could only be spent on listed Measure M projects.
Prior to the bond’s passage, several district sponsored informational meetings were held where administrative staff repeatedly emphasized that Measure M funds were tied exclusively to projects listed in the bond text. The attorney replied that was how the district marketed or promoted the bond and was different than legal restrictions. In other words, whatever the district said to get people to vote for the bond was not necessarily what it was legally obligated to fulfill. Administrative staff and the board majority backed his interpretation and the land swap was approved, gutting the integrity of Measure M. So I’m leery of the new bond.
Voters need all the facts to see the entire picture, not just snippets or “feel-good” slogans the district supplies through glossy flyers, phone bank calls and paid organizers.
Here’s some relevant information: The Master Facility Plan of 2014, featured in Manteca Bulletin articles, outlines necessary school projects. But since it’s not specifically mentioned in the bond text of Measure G, the district isn’t legally required to strictly follow the detailed projects. Without deliberately and specifically tying the Master Facility plan to the bond text, the plan is more of a guideline than a blueprint. While some renovations and repairs will occur at some schools, there’s no certainty that all existing schools will get their needed health and safety issues addressed. Bond language includes building four new schools currently empty district-owned sites. Two of these schools, Ethan Allen Elementary and South Manteca High, are unfinished Measure M projects that apparently demand additional public funds.
It is troubling that the bond was purposely designed with no limits on bond funding for individual projects, allowing one project to siphon money from other needed repairs. For instance, $53 million of the $159 million of Measure G could legally be spent on funding the South Manteca High project alone. For readers who think I’m exaggerating or using an inflated example, I’ll remind them that is exactly what happened with Measure M funds and Lathrop High. The one project sucked $23 million in Measure M funding ($13 million over its initial Measure M budget) which is over one-third of the original $66 million Measure M money.
After examining Measure G’s extensive flaws, I have suggestions for a better bond issue in 2016. It is possible to achieve a workable balance between accountability to the public and flexibility for the district staff. A $159 million bond provides enough money to complete every current health and safety and deferred maintenance project at every MUSD school. For true accountability, the district should explicitly include a reference to the Master Facility Plan in the bond language such as, “All health and safety needs and deferred maintenance projects, as detailed in the Master Facility Plan, will be completed at every existing MUSD school. Bond funds will not exceed each project’s estimated budget.” This restriction ensures that all projects would be finished without any one project hijacking additional bond funds from the others. It encourages staff to be accurate in their cost projections or to come in under budget. The incentive is that if a $10 million project ultimately costs $9.5 million the remaining $500,000 could roll-over to modernization projects. Modernization and upgrades would be chosen at various school sites at the discretion of the district staff with board approval. This flexibility empowers staff to select which schools have the most pressing needs and to adequately handle them.
Real accountability gives the Oversight Committee something tangible and concrete to actually oversee. Members would have a verifiable list of projects and costs to reference. As Measure G is currently written, the Oversight Committee would be a travesty since almost anything done to an existing school could be interpreted as fitting the generalized categories outlined in the bond.
District staff and the board majority chose to approve the vague language of Measure G. Voters have a choice too, whether to support or reject the bond measure.