RICHMOND -- West Contra Costa residents are some of the most generous in the area when it comes to their schools, approving six bond measures to rehabilitate old campuses and build new ones since 1998.

The free-spending school district builds at will, proud of a $1.6 billion program that gives school communities everything they want -- including large theaters, swimming pools and dental clinics -- at costs that appear to far exceed the norm in other districts.

And on June 3, the district is going hat in hand once more to district residents, some of the poorest in the county, seeking another $270 million for such basic upgrades as removing asbestos and repairing overloaded wiring, as well as for renovating and replacing schools, including some that had been marked for possible closure due to declining enrollment.

Linda Ruiz-Lozito, of Richmond, joins fellow "No on H" demonstrators on the McBryde Ave. overpass  to show their opposition to the bond measure
Linda Ruiz-Lozito, of Richmond, joins fellow "No on H" demonstrators on the McBryde Ave. overpass to show their opposition to the bond measure in Richmond , Calif. on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

But this year's request comes as significant opposition to the district's spending habits -- and the secrecy with which it shrouds them -- is beginning to bubble. This time around, the district is asking residents in Richmond, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Hercules, Kensington, Pinole and San Pablo for more, even though it has not yet spent $600 million from earlier bonds and it won't provide details of how previous bond money has been spent.

Bill Fay, associate superintendent for operations, says the district builds according to "scope" rather than trying to stick to budgets or schedules. When money runs out, Fay said, projects get "bumped" until another bond measure is passed.

"What this district does is, anything they want in their school, they get it," Fay told the district's Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee in January. "That's one way that costs keep going up."

District staff failed to provide much of the detailed financial records of costs associated with school contracts in response to numerous requests from this newspaper and the public. But a review of publicly available data appears to show that West Contra Costa -- with more than 50 schools and about 30,000 students -- spends far more than many other districts on school construction.

School construction cost expert Paul Abramson, who creates an annual school construction report comparing costs nationwide and regionally, found the average new high school in the region that includes California cost about $43.5 million for about 1,250 students, approximately $321 a square foot, in 2013.

But in the West Contra Costa district, projected costs for 1,300-student Pinole Valley High, which is slated to be rebuilt over the next four years, have skyrocketed far beyond that. In January, Fay told the oversight committee the school would cost $200 million, more than four times the state average. By Wednesday, his estimate had increased to $250 million, including "soft costs" for architects and other services, or about 93 percent of the $270 million that voters are being asked to approve for Measure H.

"That's beyond the parameters of anything I have seen," Abramson said, adding that some Los Angeles high schools cost as much as $125 million.

The same disparity exists with middle schools. According to the 19th Annual School Construction Report by Abramson in February, the median-priced middle school in the California-Arizona-Nevada-Hawaii region in 2013 cost $19.5 million, or $195 per square foot.

By contrast, an analysis of West Contra Costa's building costs shows that Pinole Middle School was estimated to cost $719 per square foot, with a budget of $53 million.

Some residents are pleased with the multimillion dollar school facilities built or under construction for their children and support paying more.

"Students in every part of the district will benefit because Measure H will bring all of our elementary and middle schools up to the same high standard," five residents wrote on the ballot argument in support of the measure.

But a lack of information from the district about how that will be accomplished has prompted -- for the first time ever -- growing opposition from residents who believe the schools should be built within a budget and schedule.

District resident and former bond oversight committee member Linda Ruiz-Lozito recently asked district officials for a list of schools that need asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials removed, as detailed in the Measure H ballot language. But she was told that the district wouldn't provide that information until June 3 -- Election Day.

She also questioned why the board recently agreed to triple the budget for a stadium at the already impressively rebuilt El Cerrito High -- boosting the cost from $7 million to $21 million -- while the new bond measure states that students at other schools are using unsafe classrooms.

Similarly, district resident and former bond oversight committee member Anton Jungherr asked the district for backup documentation explaining how it came up with its estimated tax rate of $36 per $100,000 in assessed valuation that residents would pay for the new bond measure. He was incredulous when the district said it had no such documents.

This year, property owners are projected to pay $282 annually per $100,000 in assessed value, or $564 for a home valued at $200,000, just to repay school bonds. If Measure H passes, that tax rate is projected to climb to $341 per $100,000, increasing taxes on a $200,000 home to $682 a year.

That is a steep price for district households where the U.S. Census reported the median household income in 2012 was $56,583.

Even some in the construction industry question why the district's schools cost so much.

Steve Chamberlin, a residential contractor who has supported district education programs, said the Making Waves charter school in Richmond was built at a cost of about $250 per square foot, compared with much higher costs for West County schools.

"It seems to me that there's a very strong feeling on the part of the school board that the issue for the district is the quality of the buildings -- and if they have great buildings, they'll have great schools," he said. "So why then is the best performing high school in the district entirely housed in portables -- Leadership Public High? You kind of look at it and you go, 'How does this work?'"

Trustee Madeline Kronenberg, who along with school board President Charles Ramsey sits on the board's two-person Facilities Construction Subcommittee, said she wanted to bring quality schools to the district after working as a teacher in another district where the floor was duct-taped. The committee routinely approves budget increases for new items added to community school wish lists.

"I don't believe for a second that this is any kind of Cadillac-level of building," she said. "Our district is right in the middle in terms of costs. This is not the Taj Mahal or Cadillac-level schools. They are excellent and better than before."

Some large architectural and construction firms hired to work on the projects have also contributed significantly to election campaigns, leading some opponents to question whether contracts are being awarded to those who offer political and monetary support.

Superintendent Bruce Harter told the bond oversight committee that the district needs Measure H to provide equitable facilities so the quality of a student's school won't depend on where they live.

"We really think it's important that we have equity for all of our students," Harter said, "to have them all in facilities that have been provided by our bond program."

However, Fay said after the meeting that the district could complete all of its planned projects without Measure H, but it would have to delay them for several years.

Staff writer Robert Rogers contributed to this report. Theresa Harrington covers education. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or tharrington@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

WEST CONTRA COSTA SCHOOL BOND MEASURES
YEAR MEASURE AMOUNT AMOUNT ISSUED UNUSED
6/2/1998 Measure E $40 million $40 million 0
11/7/2000 Measure M $150 million $150 million 0
3/5/2002 Measure D $300 million $300 million 0
11/8/2005 Measure J $400 million $322 million $78 million
6/8/2010 Measure D $380 million $140 million $240 million
11/62012 Measure E $360 million $85 million $275 million
SUBTOTAL $1.6 billion $1.037 billion $593 million
6/3/2014 Measure H $270 million
TOTAL if passes $1.9 billion
SOURCE: Contra Costa County Elections Office, West Contra Costa school district

a sampling of Bond construction projects
PREVIOUSLY COMPLETED:
El Cerrito High School
Dover Elementary
Downer Elementary
Ford Elementary
DeAnza High School
UNDER CONSTRUCTION:
Pinole Middle School
Coronado Elementary
Ohlone Elementary
Gompers/Leadership
Portola Middle School
Pinole Valley High
PLANNED:
Highland Elementary
Lake Elementary
Cameron Elementary
Fairmont Elementary
Olinda Elementary
Shannon Elementary
Stege Elementary
Valley View Elementary
Wilson Elementary