RICHMOND -- A debate over school construction costs in the West Contra Costa district appears to have prompted the school board to oust a top official who suggested money was no object in the $1.6 billion taxpayer-funded bond program.
Citing "foundational differences in approach," a settlement agreement unanimously approved by the school board July 9 will allow Bill Fay, associate superintendent of operations, to receive sick leave, vacation pay and paid administrative leave through Sept. 15, 2015, in exchange for his resignation. Fay, who earns about $184,182 a year, will receive benefits and salary during nine months of administrative leave -- at a cost to the district of about $183,750, said district spokesman Marcus Walton.
"I can't speak to the root of the problem," he said. "The settlement agreement is going to have to speak for itself."
Fay came under fire during the district's recently failed $270 million Measure H construction bond campaign, based on his comments to the bond oversight committee that the district did not abide by budgets. Instead, he said costs often exceeded original estimates because the scope would increase due to the district's desire to give communities everything they want. When he tried to implement austerity measures, Fay said he was told, "We don't do that."
After Fay's comments were published in this newspaper, Superintendent Bruce Harter wrote in a rebuttal that Fay's statements did not reflect the district's practice. Instead, Harter alleged that Fay was frustrated the day he made the comments.
However, Fay repeated similar statements at another bond oversight committee meeting, saying he was "taking the heat" for board-approved decisions.
Fay could not be reached for comment on the agreement July 10, which prohibits him from disparaging the board or district employees. Board President Charles Ramsey, who championed the bond measure, declined to comment on the settlement and said he would not answer questions about school construction costs in the context of Fay's departure.
In May, Ramsey said in an interview with this newspaper that Fay does not represent the board and that his comments reflected his own opinion.
"This is driven by standards," Ramsey said in May. "It's not driven by scope."
But some residents who believed Fay was speaking the truth fear he may be a scapegoat for the district's failed bond measure.
Linda Ruiz-Lozito, who criticized increasing costs for the bond program -- including a $21 million athletic stadium at El Cerrito High originally budgeted at $7 million -- said she recalls a Facilities Subcommittee meeting in May 2009 during which Ramsey yelled at Fay when he brought up budgets.
"He got really mad at him," Ruiz-Lozito said.
Charley Cowens, a member of the district's bond oversight committee who posted the recording of Fay's comments online, said it appears Fay is being fired for answering questions from the committee honestly.
"This is really just someone getting scapegoated," Cowens speculated. "He's taking the blame for the election, basically."
Superintendent Harter informed the committee about Fay's departure in an email.
"All of us in WCCUSD appreciate his service to our schools in the district," Harter wrote. "Bill's departure is by mutual agreement and comes from foundational differences in approach to the district's bond program."
The district is seeking an immediate replacement for Fay.
To see Bill Fay's settlement agreement, along with video and audio clips of Fay's comments about the West Contra Costa school district's construction bond program, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.