RICHMOND -- A federal probe. An overdue audit. Voter revolt. After years of smooth sailing, West Contra Costa Unified's massive $1.6 billion bond program is listing as trustees and staff scramble to get back on course, respond to mounting questions and figure out how to complete more than two dozen large construction projects after residents rejected a multimillion bond measure in June.

Their rejection of the district's $270 million Measure H -- the seventh school construction ballot measure in 16 years -- came as a shock to district officials who are now trying to dole out what's left while assessing what to do next.

Construction Manager Herman Blackmon, Jr., second from right, leads members of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee on a tour of a newly renovated science
Construction Manager Herman Blackmon, Jr., second from right, leads members of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee on a tour of a newly renovated science wing at John F. Kennedy High School, Wednesday, July 30, 2014 in Richmond, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

"My concern is that we're not going to have enough growth in assessed valuation to keep to our current commitments and time schedules as we move forward," said trustee Todd Groves. "We've committed to building schools and building them to standards. If we don't get double digit growth in assessed valuation for three or four years, we're going to have to make some decisions to either scale back standards, delay construction -- which may not save money -- or not follow through with all of our commitments."

But the loss of new bond money is just one woe for the district as residents, elected officials, members of the independent bond oversight committee and even the federal Securities and Exchange Commission pile on and intensify scrutiny of the program and those who run it, including the board president, bond underwriters and the highly paid construction management and design consultants.


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Since June:

  • Bill Fay, associate superintendent in charge of the bond construction program, agreed to resign after speaking out about the no-costs-barred mentality of the bond program. He was paid $182,750 in exchange for a promise not to disparage trustees or the district.

  • More than a dozen district residents including elected officials and former Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee members called for a third party review of the district's bond program, citing concerns about bond measure expenditures and bond refinancing. Some members of the oversight committee also questioned the scope of a planned audit and want explanations for millions of dollars of change orders for construction projects.

  • The district, board President Charles Ramsey, the Contra Costa County treasurer-tax collector, some members of the district's finance team and some consultants and advisers were subpoenaed by the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding bond finance transactions and future bond financing plans.

    Members of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee tour newly completed renovations at John F. Kennedy High School, Wednesday, July 30, 2014 in Richmond,
    Members of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee tour newly completed renovations at John F. Kennedy High School, Wednesday, July 30, 2014 in Richmond, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

    And two other longtime stalwarts of the bond program with tremendous institutional memory are leaving the district. Ramsey is running for Richmond City Council, and Martin Coyne, longtime executive director for business services who regularly reports to the board and bond oversight committee about bond financing, retires next month.

    Since the June election, opinions have varied about the future of the bond program, with some administrators saying construction will have to stop and planned construction of new schools won't happen, with others saying it may be necessary to go back to voters for another bond.

    Voters have already approved $1.6 billion in school bonds -- $56,000 per student -- since 1998. Of that, the district has issued about $1 billion so far.

    About two dozen school projects costing more than $214 million have been completed, and more than $960 million worth of projects are still underway at 24 other schools. The total bill will top out at roughly $1.2 billion before they are all completed in 2032.

    But that leaves many school construction projects on the drawing board. Just how many depends on whom you ask.

    New information recently released to the district's Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee, which is responsible for monitoring and reporting how money is spent, reveals that the district does not have enough to meet its promise that all of the district's more than 50 schools, serving nearly 29,000 students, are built to the same standards.

    In a sign of inadequate financial controls, the oversight committee itself was unsure how much money from each bond measure was spent on school construction, with an early draft of the group's annual report showing that somehow $300 million had been spent from a $150 million measure.

    A report to the group also showed that some district officials were not well-informed about the state of its rebuilding program. The report, partially based on a PowerPoint presentation given by Superintendent Bruce Harter, listed some schools as completed that were actually still under construction, and some schools that are slated for new construction yet had no money set aside in the budget. The committee itself hasn't asked for basic information, such as the costs per square foot for each project, saying it might make their monthly reports from the district too cluttered.

    Lack of specific information to the committee and public has led to confusion about how the loss of Measure H will affect planned construction, with Ramsey, the former superintendent for operations, school trustee Groves and district spokesman Marcus Walton each saying something different.

    Walton said projects at Highland and Wilson elementary schools may be delayed, while projects at Crespi Middle School and Cameron, Collins, Grant, Lake, Olinda, Shannon and Riverside elementary schools may be delayed or not completed. Groves' list of projects on the bubble was shorter but included Kennedy and Richmond high schools, while Ramsey's list identified only five schools. Fay, no longer with the district, said all the projects could be completed, albeit delayed, with existing bond funds.

    Ramsey said Friday that the loss of Measure H will force the board to make tough decisions after he leaves about whether to continue rebuilding schools or decide instead to modernize existing schools. Or, they could seek another bond measure.

    "I think they're going to have some constraints," Ramsey said. "I think there's about four of five schools that we won't get to. They may change the philosophy. They may say, 'Hey, we don't want to tear down schools anymore.' They may want to spread the money around and do something at each school. I hope not."

    Several residents have complained for months that the district has stonewalled their requests for detailed information related to bond construction costs. Ramsey said such criticism surprises him. West Contra Costa holds regular public facilities subcommittee meetings, where construction progress is discussed extensively, he said.

    "What surprises me is that we're deemed to be withholding information," Ramsey said. "Our bond financial adviser, underwriters and lawyers all come to meetings to explain things."

    Charley Cowens, a longtime member of the bond oversight committee, said the loss of Fay, Coyne and Ramsey within such a short time period will place more pressure on the board and superintendent to fill the void.

    "Now, I can see a gathering storm," he said. "The board atrophied in its knowledge of the construction program because Charles was so dominant. The other board members didn't develop as much expertise as they could have."

    Ramsey said Friday that he's committed to showing the public and the committee that the district is serious about informing them about the taxpayer-funded bond construction program, which is the third largest in the state and among the top 20 nationwide.

    "It needs more scrutiny," Ramsey said. "You can't pass six bond measures without having it as transparent as possible. We have 28,600 students. We're almost at $2 billion. You have to have trust. You have to get people behind it."

    Theresa Harrington covers education. Contact her at 925-945-476.¿ Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

    WEST CONTRA COSTA Bond construction projects
    Completed Projects: $214.5 million
    Total projects under construction: $960.5 million
    Total to be rebuilt with current funding: $266 million
    Projects waiting to be rebuilt: $272.7 million
    Approximate total costs for all planned projects: $1.68 billion
    Matching funds: $163.6 million
    Total available to spend: $1.8 billion
    Source: West Contra Costa School District

    Bond proceeds
    1998 Measure E: $40 million
    2000 Measure M: $150 million
    2002 Measure D: $300 million
    2005 Measure J: $400 million
    2010 Measure D: $380 million
    2012 Measure E: $360 million
    TOTAL: $1.63 billion


    IF YOU GO:
    The West Contra Costa school district's Citizens' Bond Oversight Audit Subcommittee will meet at 6 p.m. Monday to discuss the scope of the district's bond construction program audit in the district's facilities operations center at 1400 Marina Way South, Richmond.
    More information is available by visiting www.wccusd-bond-oversight.com.
    To see video clips from the last Bond Oversight Committee meeting, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.