When it comes to West Contra Costa's gargantuan school construction program, money is no object.
That's the take-away from the stunning comments of Bill Fay, associate superintendent for operations, to the district's bond oversight committee. "There are no controls to contain that budget," he said.
It's one of many reasons voters should reject Measure H on Tuesday's ballot, in which the district seeks the seventh voter bond approval in 17 years, increasing its building program from $1.6 billion to $1.9 billion.
It helps explain why, for example, Pinole Valley High's construction cost projection runs more than four times the 2013 median for the California-Arizona-Nevada-Hawaii region.
Since 1999, the district has issued more construction bonds, about $1 billion so far, than any California K-12 district except the much larger Los Angeles and San Diego districts. It has also sought the most state waivers of its legal bonding limit. No other district comes close. West Contra Costa officials plan to seek more immediately after the election.
They're out of control.
"Most construction programs ... (are) driven by budget and schedule," Fay explained. "This program is not driven by budget or schedule, it's driven by scope." During the planning process, the district seeks input from school site councils, staff members, parents and the public. "Anything they want in their school, they get it."
To pay for it, the district issues the bonds. Property owners must then cover the resulting debt through higher tax bills. This year, property owners paid $282 for every $100,000 of assessed valuation. That rate would increase to $341 next year if Measure H passes. West Contra Costa would have the second-highest East Bay school tax rate, behind only Piedmont, where residents have far more disposable income.
Most West County residents want safe and clean schools for students. But voters didn't intend to sign a blank check.
That's why school board members, led by Charles Ramsey, and Superintendent Bruce Harter have tried to hide the cost. Each time they place a bond measure on the ballot, they treat it as an isolated commitment, never mentioning existing debt from the past measures. Not once in ballot materials have they told voters the total obligation.
Meanwhile, financial beneficiaries -- construction companies, architectural firms and organized labor -- have underwritten most of the $2.8 million in campaign contributions since 2002 backing the bond measures. And they're primary contributors to Ramsey's current campaign for Richmond mayor.
To assuage concerns, each ballot measure touts the supposedly independent bond oversight committee mandated by state law. But the school board appoints the members, so the committee isn't independent. Not even close.
Nevertheless, some members have taken their job seriously, only to run into district stonewalling, as have members of the public seeking information. School officials even try to control the committee's agendas.
"We have been systematically put off," says committee Chairwoman Ivette Ricco. "We're supposed to keep an eye on the money for the public. ... But if we're not able to access that information, how are we supposed to do our job?"
Perhaps that's why two former oversight committee members signed the ballot arguments against Measure H. Current member Charles Cowens also plans to vote against it. "Bond number 7. That's ridiculous."
Fay's recorded comments, responding to committee questions about increasing construction costs, displayed rare district candor. He said he "sanitized" his prepared written response but wanted to "verbally talk about" it at the committee meeting.
When Fay first came to the district six years ago, he said, he didn't know about its approach to construction spending. "But I certainly found out when I tried to put in austerity measures and I was told, 'you will not do this,' and 'this is what we don't do.' "
Voters can hear the recording at http://bit.ly/1jroKHR. They should listen before they cast their ballots.