Suggesting that the West Contra Costa Unified School District has “outstanding financial management” is akin to suggesting that the 7-9 Oakland Raiders had an outstanding season last year. Yet this is exactly what outgoing Superintendent Bruce Harter wrote in his recent April “Superintendent Message” that went out to all staff and was posted publicly on the District’s homepage.
As citizen advocates for taxpayers whose money the District is managing, we are compelled to point out the myriad ways in which Superintendent Harter’s spin does not hold up to scrutiny. Here are the sobering facts:
Harter suggests that complaints about the WCCUSD Bond Program being plagued by cost overruns are a myth because “During the formative years of the bond[s], our Board implemented a system of checks and balances to ensure that the schools were built as envisioned and that the bond dollars were spent as intended” and that “Annual external audits review the entirety of the program.”
The fact is that until recently, school construction projects were not managed on the basis of carefully planned budgets! Instead, they were designed and managed “on scope,” a fanciful term meaning that cost was no object in pursuit of buildings with whatever features anyone wanted to include. The system of checks and balances that Harter cites was so weak that it took a whistleblower coming forward and alleging tens of millions of dollars of wasteful mismanagement (which Harter himself is asserted by the whistleblower to have “facilitated”) to get the board and the public to pay attention. The annual audits have been so flimsy that the school board was recently compelled to authorize nearly $1 million to conduct a full, independent forensic audit to uncover what’s been happening behind closed doors.
What is most disturbing about Harter’s suggestion that costs have been kept in check is the stark reality that a huge $1.6 billion bond program is essentially out of money while thousands of WCCUSD students are still stuck in portables or buildings with worrisome seismic conditions, with few new facilities in operation. How could a well-run facilities program possibly produce that result? It is like saying that your personal budget worked perfectly when you run out of money halfway through the month and still need groceries.
Harter then goes on to state that “our construction costs are lower than the averages in the Bay Area or Los Angeles,” citing costs per-square-foot. This is simply incorrect. The costs per-square-foot measure does not take into account either the bloated building sizes (at 150-225% of State averages) or the other “soft” costs (no-bid contracts to favored campaign contributors) where ballooning always happens — it’s like figuring only the cost of a steak without considering the hundred-dollar bottle of wine you’ve also decided to order. One might expect Bay Area costs to be somewhat higher, but WCCUSD’s new facilities are enormously more costly than the state average, when measured on a cost per student basis. For instance, the new Pinole Valley High School will be 268,000 square feet, 161% of the California average for high schools - if it had the 1,600 students for which it is designed. In truth, there are currently only 1,200 students, which means 223% of the benchmark, and by the time it is complete the District projects only 1,000 students, driving the ratio to 268%. On the soft cost side, the architect’s fee for this Taj Mahal is a whopping $14.8 million, or $12,300 per current student. For comparison, a full service charter high school campus at Hilltop was built recently by an outside foundation for a total construction cost, including land acquisition, of $30 million, or only about twice that of the Pinole project’s architect’s fees alone…stunning!
A new Pinole Valley High School, with a $231 million budget, will cost nearly $200,000 per student! Let that sink in. Two hundred thousand dollars per student, half of the cost of the median home in Pinole. The average cost-per-student for California high schools is $61,000.
From the experience of CoCoTax members serving for years on citizens school bond oversight committees in the county, we know that managing a facilities bond program is a complicated, complex and daunting task, one fraught with political challenges. However, we cannot mislead our way to an acceptable outcome. If we are going to move forward and provide the schools all of our students deserve, we must manage from a place of truth, transparency and reality. If voters and taxpayers are ever going to trust the District enough to support revenue measures in the future, district leaders must be open and truthful, and the board must hold accountable those who do not meet those requirements.
The painful truth is that WCCUSD has not exhibited “outstanding financial management.” The plain truth is that district taxpayers have much higher tax bills, with less new schools to show for them, than do the taxpayers in other communities. However, it is also true that we now have an opportunity for a better future, since many of the actors involved in the mismanagement have left or are leaving the district.
Sunlight, as it is often said, is the best disinfectant. We believe by shining some light on the reality of WCCUSD’s financial management, we are taking a necessary step towards a future where it can be said with a straight face that such management is more like the Warriors than the Raiders – truly outstanding.Jack Weir, President