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A tough road to a 'Yes' vote on Hart bond

Posted: October 11, 2008 8:56 p.m.
Updated: December 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.
If a down-and-out friend hit you up for a bunch of money to build a house, and then built only half a house because he wasn't paying attention to how much the framers and plumbers and electricians were charging, how willing would you be to give him twice as much as before to finish the job?

Measure V was touted as a panacea for the overcrowded William S. Hart Union High School District.

Approved by local voters in 2001, the $158 million bond measure was going to build 10 new schools, including a high school in Castaic, and bring 11 existing schools into the 21st century.

It didn't happen. Yes, Measure V modernized Canyon High and Saugus High and Arroyo Seco Junior High. The campuses look great.

But how many new schools opened since 2001 that wouldn't have opened without the passage of Measure V? Zero.

All four new schools - Golden Valley and West Ranch high schools, Rancho Pico and Rio Norte junior highs - were built primarily with other money and would have opened regardless.

Golden Valley and West Ranch parents can thank Measure V voters for their athletic fields, and Rancho Pico got a gym, but $158 million in bond financing didn't add a single classroom to those campuses.

What went wrong
What went wrong? Lots of things.

It wasn't just $158 million. The thing about a local school bond is that the state will match it dollar-for-dollar.

Coupled with developer fees, the $158 million from Measure V translated into a total school construction budget of more than $500 million, and the school board just couldn't get its arms around it.

Signal readers remember the saga of the construction cost overruns. Sadly, that's how school board members found out about the overruns: by reading The Signal.

School administrators never told them, and they never thought to ask. As the head of the Measure V Oversight Committee told the school board, "You really don't know what the heck you're doing."

In the end, the Hart district's facilities manager took the fall and pointed fingers in all directions on his way out the door. He said he "acquiesced" to incessant requests for unbudgeted changes from teachers and administrators.

He said an inept architect cost the district millions. He said grass was put in and taken out. A dance floor was installed and ripped out three times. A modular building was "fouled up." The list goes on.

All told, the projects ran $42 million over budget, and as they've done since 1992 when NorthLake was approved for development, Castaic parents would have to wait.

Now comes the Hart district with its hand out once more, asking local voters to approve a $300 million bond measure with promises to build a high school in Castaic; modernize Hart High, Sierra Vista and Placerita junior highs; and finish the job at Saugus and Canyon - and maybe do more, if some money is left over. (Big sigh.)

What's different?
What's different this time? Lots of things, says Superintendent Jaime Castellanos, who himself tops the list of "what's different" since the passage of Measure V in 2001.

Batting cleanup with the overruns, Castellanos restructured the staff roles at district headquarters and tightened the grip on the money. No longer does one person make construction management decisions in a vacuum. No longer do administrators approve unbudgeted changes. No longer does the school board get information in bits and pieces.

Are those changes enough to entrust the Hart district with another $300 million in local tax money? Not for some people who otherwise might be inclined to support a school bond measure.

An opposition group that includes prominent local school supporters wants assurances. It wants the public to know exactly how the dollars would be spent, it wants board members and administrators to be held accountable, and it wants the public to influence spending decisions on the front end.

Measure SA on the Nov. 4 ballot does not provide those assurances. Measure SA merely creates a state-mandated Citizens Oversight Committee structured exactly like the Measure V Oversight Committee, which doesn't "oversee" anything as most people construe the word. It merely rubber-stamps reports that say the money was spent on authorized projects, with no influence over the sequencing of projects or any budget decisions.

Last week, Castellanos and a school board member pacified opposition leaders by agreeing to expand the scope of the citizens' committee.

Castellanos said the Measure SA Oversight Committee will see concept designs on the front end; it will see complete budgets; and it will be asked its opinion of project timelines.

Opposition leaders suspended their active "no" campaign.

Nothing in writing guarantees it will happen - only the very public promise of the school superintendent, and the expectation that Signal readers won't let him forget it.

Ask yourself two things
What guarantees a Castaic a high school? Also nothing. But district officials say they're eyeing four sites in Castaic, and the downturn in the real-estate market could prompt landowners to sell.

The city has been buying land cheaply in this bad market with its open-space bond money; maybe the school district can do the same.

Who knows? If the climbing real-estate market during the Measure V years fueled runaway costs, maybe a down market is just the time to buy land and hire out-of-work contractors.

When you enter the polling booth on Nov. 4, ask yourself two things.

One: Is building new schools and modernizing old ones the right thing to do?

Two: Do you trust Jaime Castellanos to provide transparency, accountability, and opportunities for meaningful input from the Oversight Committee?

We believe the answer to both is yes. For these reasons, we urge you not to forget the past, but to move forward and vote yes with a keen awareness of your duty as a taxpayer to watch the school board as it spends your Measure SA money.


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