Shiny Buildings, Shady Dealings

West Contra Costa Unified has plenty of money for school construction and not enough for education, thanks to two board members.

The El Cerrito Performing Arts Center is a spectacular building by any measure, the kind of structure that politicians are proud to show off. It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art space with a convertible orchestra pit, balcony seating, and audio-visual equipment commonly used in professional theaters. In fact, Berkeley West Edge Opera, a critically acclaimed professional opera company, began using the theater for its performances last year.

Mark Streshinsky, the opera’s artistic director, can’t stop gushing about the center. “It’s just fantastic,” he said. “It has a pit, it has space — it was exactly what we needed.” Streshinsky said the arts center was part of the reason behind his decision to take the job as opera director. And in its first season in the new building, West Edge sold more tickets per performance than it ever did when it was renting Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Performing Arts Center.

But industrial-quality A/V equipment and high-tech catwalks don’t come cheap. The theater project — the crown jewel in the West Contra Costa Unified School District‘s construction program and part of a larger effort to renovate El Cerrito High School — cost about $22.6 million, according to WLC Architects, one of the firms that oversaw it.

But for some observers, El Cerrito High, along with its high-priced arts center, has become a troubling symbol. In it, they see the biggest and best distillation of what they perceive to be an institutional preference for high-income El Cerrito over lower-income Richmond and San Pablo. After all, the same year the ribbon was cut on the renovated El Cerrito High, Richmond High made national news when a fifteen-year-old girl was gang-raped on school grounds during a dance, and many parents, teachers, and students blamed the assault in part on the lack of lighting, sturdy fencing, or security cameras in the courtyard near the scene of the attack.

For others, the theater’s expensive renovation represents something bigger: lavish construction spending and misplaced priorities in a district which only rescued itself from bankruptcy a little over a decade ago, which still struggles with student achievement, and which just two months ago received the lowest grade possible for improving minority achievement among 146 of the state’s largest districts. “I always say, we have a Cadillac bond program on a Buick’s budget,” said Anton Jungherr, a retired school administrator who resigned from the school district’s Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee in 2006 “in protest” of what he saw to be unnecessary cost overruns.

Much of this tension crystallized in March 2010, when West Contra Costa’s school board had a choice: Ask voters to approve another construction bond, which goes specifically to building projects, or a parcel tax, which goes toward programs and personnel that help kids read and write. The board — which represents some 30,000 students in Richmond, Hercules, El Cerrito, San Pablo, and surrounding unincorporated towns — chose the $380 million construction bond, the district’s fifth in twelve years, and placed it on the June ballot. Measure D passed with a seven-percent margin.

Measure D gave West Contra Costa County taxpayers one of the largest bond debts in the country, at nearly $1.4 billion. There’s also evidence that it helped the two board members who led the effort for it, Charles Ramsey and Madeline Kronenberg, win re-election. The two El Cerrito politicians received huge campaign donations last year from companies and workers who have benefitted from previous construction bond measures and who stand to benefit more thanks to Measure D.

In an interview, Ramsey said the idea that West Contra Costa prioritizes construction over essential services is “naïve.” He also said that the suggestion that there was a quid pro quo — of putting Measure D on the ballot in exchange for big campaign donations — is laughable.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that construction-worker unions and construction firms bankrolled Ramsey and Kronenberg’s November 2010 re-election campaigns after the two school board members led the effort to put the construction measure on the ballot. In addition, there’s evidence that their decision to push the construction bond ruined any chance of raising more money in West Contra Costa for educational programs. In the year since Measure D passed, the school district has pushed two tax measures that would have helped pay for kids’ educational needs, but both lost after facing opposition from those who said they couldn’t afford to pay more taxes in part because of all the construction bond measures they had previously approved.

Indeed, for the foreseeable future, it looks as if West Contra Costa will have plenty of money to build shiny new buildings — even as the instruction inside those buildings continues to suffer.

The most recent debate in West Contra Costa Unified between school construction and teaching and learning began in 2009. Charley Cowens, who ran for school board last year partly because he was concerned about the district’s huge construction bond program, said that at first it was widely assumed among local activists that the district’s next tax measure would fund educational programs and personnel — not construction. “No one was mentioning a bond,” he said.

A parcel tax subcommittee was put together, but, Cowens said, “somehow the conversation quickly shifted to be about a bond measure.” He continued, “There was never any explanation about why we needed another one. No one outside of the [school] board was crying out for another bond.”

In September 2009, the school board hired a San Mateo-based consulting firm, Godbe Research, to conduct a poll on the relative feasibility of a parcel tax versus a bond measure. Godbe’s team found that each had roughly the same level of support in the community. But because of Proposition 39, a statewide initiative approved by voters in 2000, bond measures need only 55 percent of the vote to pass, while parcel taxes require two-thirds. With both projected percentages hanging at just about 60 percent, Godbe recommended that if the board wanted to float a tax that year, a construction bond measure would be the safer bet.

According to Ramsey, it was simple math. With both taxes polling at roughly the same rate of popularity, the construction bond measure had a better shot at winning. So the school board, led by Ramsey and Kronenberg, voted in March 2010 to put the construction bond on the June ballot. And sure enough, Measure D won with 62 percent of the vote.

Quickly afterward, the campaign donation floodgates opened for Ramsey and Kronenberg. In the five months between June and the November school board election, the two politicians received tens of thousands of dollars from construction-worker unions and construction-related companies that have or had no-bid contracts with the district. The unions and firms had profited handsomely from West Contra Costa’s massive school construction program and Measure D promised to keep the gravy train rolling.

Kronenberg received $58,000 from architecture and engineering firms that work with the district, including a $15,000 donation from the Seville Group, a Pasadena-based construction management firm that’s one of the district’s most favored contractors; $7,500 from Deems, Lewis, McKinley (now DLM Architects), which worked with the district to rebuild DeAnza High School starting in 2009; and $4,500 from WLC Architects, one of the firms overseeing the El Cerrito High renovation; plus at least a dozen contributions from other construction-related firms working with the district.

Ramsey, meanwhile, received $101,300 in donations from various construction-worker unions whose members depend heavily on government construction jobs. Various electrical workers’ unions funneled at least $36,000 into his campaign; he got $18,500 from sheet-metal workers unions; and he received tens of thousands of dollars from building and trade councils and from unions representing carpenters, laborers, and plumbers.

In fact, Ramsey hauled in far more cash than he needed to win re-election. So much so, that he ended up donating more than $9,000 to twelve different candidates running for office elsewhere around the state, campaign finance records show.

It also wasn’t the first time that Ramsey raised eyebrows with his fund-raising prowess. School board races are typically low-budget affairs in California, but in 2006, Ramsey raked in a staggering $132,000 in donations — the highest in the school district’s history, and nearly one hundred times more than the bottom three candidates combined, according to campaign finance reports. All told, between 2002 and 2010, Kronenberg received $115,800 and Ramsey $13,500 from a handful of construction-related firms that have done a combined $134.5 million in business with the district in the same time period, district documents show.

For Linda Ruiz Lozito — who lives in unincorporated Richmond and who has been quietly collecting data and documents about West Contra Costa’s dealings in the hopes that someday the board’s apparent pay-to-play culture would come to light — these contributions represent an obvious, financial incentive for Kronenberg and Ramsey to continue pushing the construction bond program instead of measures designed to educate students. “Special interests are capturing the district,” she said.

In Lozito’s mind, it’s as simple as following the money: As Kronenberg and Ramsey received outsized donations from construction-worker unions and construction-related companies, the district’s construction program — funded by taxpayer-approved, board-proposed bonds — grew exponentially. And it’s no coincidence that just a few weeks after the most recent bond measure passed, the big campaign-donation checks began to pour in.

In an interview, Kronenberg flatly denied that the decisions she has made as a school board member were influenced by the political donations she received from construction interests. Through her work as an El Cerrito PTA member, she said, “I got to know the people in the bond program, and they supported me.” She continued, “My judgment has always been that it makes sense to build.”

Ramsey defended the district’s construction project as well: “Bottom line is, we’re proud of our construction program.”

But West Contra Costa’s huge construction bonds have proved costly. Not long after Measure D passed, the school board decided that it needed the parcel tax after all, to avoid more devastating cuts to teaching and learning. So the board put Measure M on the November 2010 ballot, a parcel tax that would have paid for class-size reduction, arts and music enrichment programs, and campus safety measures. Supporters of the tax painted it as a last-ditch effort to maintain vital services. “California’s support for local public schools has reached rock bottom,” district superintendent Bruce Harter wrote on the district’s web site at the time. “For 2011-12, we’re facing the worst financial situation since the district went into state receivership in the early 1990s.”

But despite pleas from Harter and others, many opposed the ballot measure, arguing, essentially, that following the construction bond measure taxes had become too high. “Last spring, when we endorsed the district’s latest bond measure, we said that would be it,” read a Contra Costa Times editorial in the fall of 2010. “We’re surprised that the school board is coming back now for an additional parcel tax. The district shouldn’t be asking for both in one year.” Measure M lost.

Then the virtually same thing happened again earlier this month. The Richmond City Council asked voters to approve a sales tax hike, part of the revenue from which would have gone to fund educational programs in the school district. It failed by a fourteen-point margin.

To Kris Hunt of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, it’s obvious why the last two tax measures failed: “I think people are saying they’re taxed to the max.”

But even those not associated with the anti-tax movement have come to the same conclusion. In an editorial published last month opposing the sales tax, the CoCo Times laid it out similarly: “District voters are taxed-out, already paying for two other district parcel taxes to fund school operations as well as bond programs to finance one of the state’s largest construction programs. The district has gone to the well too many times.”

As a result, West Contra Costa has plenty of money to build beautiful buildings like the Performing Arts Center, but is still having trouble funding basic education.

This fact comes into sharper relief now, as California faces a monumental budget gap, and school districts throughout the state wrestle with potentially disastrous, largely unprecedented cuts. Over the course of the past several months, thousands of teachers have been laid off, arts and athletic programs have been eliminated, and academic programs have been slimmed, tinkered with, and trimmed to within an inch of their lives. This is the reality of a still-flagging economy and a state budget that can no longer sustain itself, and it’s a fact of life in every school district up and down the state.

On June 28, the West Contra Costa school board is expected to pass a balanced budget, but it wasn’t easy: In March, the district slashed 138 jobs, and in April, another fourteen were eliminated. Moreover, the latest cuts came after a rough several years for the district. Kronenberg and Ramsey readily acknowledge that West Contra Costa has spent the last several years cutting programs and services that many other districts consider untouchable. “We’ve already made the big cuts,” Ramsey noted.

The school district, for example, does not have crossing guards or elementary-school music programs, has already enacted furloughs, recently cut lifetime and family benefits for staff, and has “hardly any” school nurses, Kronenberg noted. At the same time, the district had to rely on one-time stimulus funds to stay in the black this year, and Ramsey acknowledged that, depending on state funding, the 2012-13 school year could bring a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

In a particularly ironic twist, if those doomsday scenarios do come true, West Contra Costa could eventually be in a position where it can no longer afford the janitorial and grounds-keeping staff it needs to adequately maintain its expensive new buildings.

While it’s not illegal, or even particularly uncommon, for unions and firms with no-bid government contracts to donate heavily to political candidates, it can raise questions about where a school board member’s priorities lie and whether they feel beholden to their donors.

But Kronenberg said it was state school finance law that played a major role in her decision to select the construction bond measure over the parcel tax measure last year. “What’s privileged construction over academics is the state,” she said. “We didn’t create the law that says bond measures only need 55 percent of the vote to pass. Because of this, it’s harder for you to get programs for academics than it is for you to build a new school.”

Indeed, it’s a sad irony that Prop 39, which was intended to make it easier for communities to fund construction projects, may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging districts to push construction bonds, even as they struggle to find the funds that parcel taxes would pay for.

Moreover, it appears that another institutional factor may be facilitating West Contra Costa’s construction program: The district’s school board elections, unlike presidential and congressional elections, don’t have campaign-contribution caps. The logic for this, presumably, is that the stakes are low enough and the contributions relatively small in local elections that caps would only serve as an added, unnecessary layer of red tape. But in West Contra Costa, where construction-related companies and unions have become accustomed to writing big campaign checks, questions of undue influence are becoming more common.

Ramsey, however, flatly rejected the suggestion that the questions about his priorities and allegiances might decrease if the district implemented contribution caps. “Campaign finance [reform] has been a failure,” he said.

However, Jason Freeman — a school board candidate who was outspent by Ramsey by a ratio of about ten to one in last November’s election — argues that the district’s lax campaign finance rules allow for a few large interests to exert greater control over the outcome of political races. “What makes this kind of race so different from every other race is that it’s unregulated,” Freeman said.

“When people talk about money in politics, they’re talking about presidential and congressional races where there’s a lot of regulation,” he continued. “This is a totally different ballgame because there’s just no rules — and those big checks come with there being no rules.”

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided by one of the consulting companies that oversaw the El Cerrito High renovation, Landry and Bogan, a previous version of this article misstated the cost of the Performing Arts Center.


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