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MUSD bond talk not mismanagement
letter to editor

Editor, Manteca Bulletin,

 After reading a recent column by Jeff Tilton (“I can’t make this stuff up” July 28, 2018), I debated whether to respond to some of his comments regarding the Manteca Unified School District. I wonder if he wrote some of his more outrageous and unsupported assertions merely to provoke readers’ responses. But his opinion on the MUSD board and its decision to delay going out for a bond showed such a fundamental lack of understanding of the complexities of the situation that I feel compelled to offer a different perspective. 

First, let’s examine his actual words, “Manteca Unified School District Board of Trustees wisely rejected (or shelved) a plan to go out to Bond (i.e., tax the citizens due to its own financial mismanagement) during the November 2018 election.” After lobbing this backhanded compliment, where a blatant insult to the board is couched in supposed praise for its wisdom, Tilton simply drops the mic and walks away, his unsubstantiated claim left hanging in the air. “Financial mismanagement”? Where are Tilton’s examples to bolster his argument or support this damning assertion? Unfortunately, they are nowhere to be found. Instead, his words are like him detonating a mine field, with no regard to the collateral damage he causes. This is an election year and he does a huge disservice to those school board Trustees who are running for re-election by publicly accusing them, with no verifiable facts or proof of “financial mismanagement”. I realize that we all have the right to voice our opinions and anyone can say anything (pretty much). But words (like actions) do have consequences and writing a column comes with a responsibility to the public. 

I was part of the MUSD committee to examine the feasibility of a new bond to help fund athletic facilities. I’d like to share some experiences and insights. When first asked by Facilities Director Aaron Bowers if I would be on the committee, I declined. I had already spoken publicly before the Trustees at a previous board meeting about my strong conviction that 2018 was not the right time to go out for a bond and my position on that hadn’t changed. I thought the committee would be an advocacy group, meant to support the plan for a new bond. Mr. Bowers explained to me that Superintendent Burke’s and the board’s intentions were to get a cross-section of perspectives and for the committee members to come up with an honest assessment of the pros and cons that would be presented to the board for their final decision. So I agreed to serve on the committee and found the process to be a valuable one. Committee members shared their views and concerns and everyone, regardless of their opinions, treated one another with respect. One of the concerns raised was that by locking the bond into only funding athletic facilities, other district facilities needs would go unmet. This concern led the committee to voice support for an update of the Master Facilities Plan, which was formulated in 2014, so that the board could more accurately assess facilities needs that weren’t addressed in the 2014 plan and prioritize them accordingly. There were also committee members suggesting that the overwhelming needs of Manteca High be given serious consideration in any new bond.  

 During the potential bond discussion, Superintendent Burke informed us that Measure G (the school safety bond) had so far qualified for $8 million in State funding, but that the State had not come through with any of this money. This reduces the amount and extent of projects that can be completed, putting the burden mostly on bond money rather than the desired partnership with the State. This lack of State funding follow-through only increases the pressure to seek a future bond. In contrast, with the Measure M school bond of 2004, over $23 million of the $60 million bond money went to build Lathrop High with the State contributing about $31 million. Mello Roos funding (around $16 million) and developer fees ($10 million) completed this $81 million project. Without the combined $54 million of bond money and State contributions, the Lathrop community, which had waited so long for its own high school, would undoubtedly have been left waiting even longer. 

 School bonds are not intended as bail outs or cover ups for “financial mismanagement”. Instead, they are sometimes needed to augment district facilities money in order to stretch dollars and complete more projects. Think of it this way: My family bought our 1920 fixer-upper home 25 years ago and have been renovating it ever since. Installing central heating and air conditioning, a new roof, updating the kitchen, bedrooms and  bathroom, as well as landscaping, are just a few of our home improvements. Sometimes we would budget for one project, but another more pressing need would suddenly arise (hello, leaking roof!) and the original project had to be delayed due to budget constraints. Now substitute our one home with 20 elementary schools, 5 high schools, 2 continuation schools and the campus and we can see the challenges MUSD faces, with schools ranging from 100 year old buildings to 12 year old facilities. Chances are that somewhere in the district, at any given time, some campus is in need of renovation or improvement. 

Whatever time frame the MUSD board chooses to pursue a new bond, it needs to act with integrity, balancing flexibility with accountability and making sure that both the bond language and the tactics of any consulting firm hired are clear and honest. The public should expect no less. 

Karen Pearsall