Strong Oversight, Not Just Hindsight, For Oakland School Construction Funds

Our school district has aging buildings and changing needs, and the school construction fund has run out of money to pay for them. The solution would be for the voters to pass a construction bond measure to replenish the fund. But voters are rightly skeptical: a recent Alameda County Grand Jury report told many stories of financial misdeeds, many of them related to this same fund.

The list of what went wrong with spending on school construction funded by Measure J is a long one: overspending on a few big projects that ran way over budget, ridiculously long delays in construction, many important projects that had been promised were cancelled, even a whistleblower lawsuit alleging corruption, etc., etc.

At the same time that spending from Measure J (a school construction bond from 2012) was out of control, spending from Measure N (a parcel tax from 2014 for high school programs) has been put to good use and has been the unsung victory in OUSD: high school graduation rates are up at high schools in every part of Oakland, and I have not heard of any allegations of misspending of Measure N funds, which is great in a district where you hear those kinds of allegations all too often.

What's the difference? Why did Measure N succeed where Measure J did not?

Part of it had to do with good leadership over our high schools, while in our Facilities Department, when the late and much-loved Tim White criticized how the Measure J work was being done, he was chased away by former Superintendent Antwan Wilson. After Antwan left Oakland, Tim came back to much acclaim to lead the Facilities work once again, but it was too late to fix the legacy of Measure J. Tim tragically passed away last November, and it is a huge blow to Oakland to lose him. The best way to commemorate him will be to continue the work that was so important to him of improving our town's school buildings.

But another big difference between Measure J and Measure N was in the strength of the citizen oversight. For Measure N, all proposals go before a committee that makes recommendations to the school board before any money is spent. For Measure J, on the other hand, the citizen oversight committee only finds out what happened after the fact, too late to make a difference.

Last November, the ABJ Construction Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) proposed a set of oversight provisions to the school board that would strengthen their role going forward. For example, in the future, if the project list changed, that would come to the CBOC at the same time that it goes to the school board's Facilities Committee. With Measure J, many important projects got cut from the list, like Claremont Middle School's cafeteria and the renovation of Roosevelt Middle School, but the community that had fought for those projects did not know that they were being cut until it was too late. If it hadn't been for Tim White's return, the new buildings currently going up at Fremont High School would never have happened - it is thanks to him that that construction finally went forward after many years of nothing happening.

Another proposed oversight provision would be that large changes to project scope and budgets would be reported to the CBOC at the same time they go to the Board for consideration. Too often, these changes to construction contracts got buried in the long list of 'consent calendar' items before the Board that don't get discussed at the meetings, just voted up or down as a whole. Before we knew it, the costs of the new Glenview Elementary School buildings and the Central Kitchen had ballooned completely out of control.

Finally, under this proposal CBOC would also be consulted when Bond program auditors and other consultants are selected and when new CBOC members are being considered, so that the right kinds of expertise are always present on the CBOC. In all of these, the school board would retain final decision-making power, but increasing the voice of the CBOC and the transparency of the process would be a huge help. CBOC members were sensitive to the need not to slow down construction with too much red tape, so they made sure that the recommendation process would happen in parallel, not prior to, the Board making its decisions.

OUSD has almost overwhelming facilities needs. The Facilities Master Plan that is being released in early February identifies about $3 billion (yes, with a B) of projects that need to happen. These include projects that should have been done under Measure J, as well as new needs that have come up in the intervening 8 years. As a community, we need to prioritize which are most vital for our kids, because if taxpayers approve a new bond measure in November, it will only provide about $600 million towards these needs.

Given all of this, no person of integrity who has been paying attention could support a new school bond construction measure unless much stronger oversight provisions are put in place. Incredibly, some board members are actually opposed to the CBOC's proposals. I hate to make Trump comparisons in Oakland, but this is one of those places where it might apply - what do people need to do before we hold them accountable?

If stronger citizen committee oversight - not just hindsight - makes sense to you, then contact your school board member and ask them to pass the CBOC's recommendations at the Board meeting on February 26.

With stronger oversight, our next school construction bond measure might even be as successful as Measure N has been. We can do much more than hope for it - let's fight for it.

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  • Sam Davis