RICHMOND -- West Contra Costa school district officials and allies fired back this week to news reports exploring how the district's $1.6 billion bond construction program -- passed by voters with the help of millions in campaign funding by organized labor and construction firms -- has helped fund a series of pricey projects driven by "scope" rather than budgets or schedules.
Associate Superintendent for Operations Bill Fay's characterizations to the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee of the massive construction program as aimed at giving "anything" to school faculty and community members drew a sharp rebuke from other top officials in the district.
Fay's comments "do not reflect the values and commitments of our Board of Education or the operation of our bond program," Superintendent Bruce Harter wrote in a letter published on Richmond Councilman Tom Butt's website this week. "They were made at a meeting in January of this year and came from frustration rather than belief."
Fay's comments seemed to indicate that costs were not a priority as the district seeks voter approval of its seventh bond measure since 1998 on Tuesday.
"What this district does is, anything they want in their school, they get it," Fay told the Bond Oversight Committee in January. "That's one way that costs keep going up."
Some former and current members of the committee have grown increasingly critical of the district's handling of the bond program, saying they have been left in the dark about key details.
School board President Charles Ramsey, whose fundraising and public lobbying have been a driving force behind the ambitious program, echoed Harter's statements in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"Bill Fay doesn't represent the board; that was his own personal statement," Ramsey said. "This is driven by standards ... It's not driven by scope. If it was, it would have cost a lot more."
The controversy over costs and scope comes at the worst time for proponents of the district's latest offering, Measure H, which asks voters on Tuesday to approve another $270 million bond for school construction.
The $1.6 billion authorized to date has funded a series of new schools, with amenities such as large theaters and dental clinics, at costs that appear to exceed the norm in other districts, although comprehensive data are difficult to come by.
"We are proud of our program and our standards," Ramsey said. "Our facilities will last for the next 75 years, not the next 20 years."
A school district document provided by officials this week shows more than 30 projects funded by bond programs. Among the most expensive are Pinole Valley High School, which is budgeted for $181.9 million, El Cerrito High School and its new stadium complex at $148.4 million and De Anza High School in Richmond at $118.1 million. Fay said at a meeting May 22 that Pinole Valley High could cost as much as $250 million.
In Pittsburg, the city's namesake high school was completed in 2011 for about $103 million, a cost per square foot of $438, according to the Pittsburg school district.
According to budget numbers provided by the West Contra Costa district and square-footage numbers provided by critics of the bond program -- which the district said it could not verify on Friday -- the actual or projected cost per square foot of three major West County high school projects is higher. Pinole Valley High is projected to cost $953 per square foot, while El Cerrito High and De Anza High, both built in recent years, come in $610 and $517, respectively.
The district is also in the process of building a sports facility at El Cerrito High at a projected cost of $21 million.
School construction cost expert Paul Abramson, who creates an annual school construction report comparing costs nationwide and regionally, found that the median 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. However, he noted in an email this week that some of the high school costs in his report may not include so-called "soft" costs for site preparation and other expenses not related to construction.
He said the limited response he's received from follow-up surveys to districts indicate that "construction costs are about 80 percent of total cost and that the figure we have been publishing tends to fall right between full cost and construction cost alone."
Ramsey defended the numbers.
"The community and the public have embraced what they think is appropriate for students. It's a quality of construction the community has valued and felt comfortable with," Ramsey said. "We're visionaries, we've made smart and prudent decisions. We are not putting lipstick on a pig."
Fellow Trustee Madeline Kronenberg, who has received significant backing in her school board races from firms involved in the construction program, said last week that "our district is right in the middle in terms of (school construction) costs."
She did not respond to a request this week to provide evidence supporting that statement or to elaborate on what steps, if any, she has taken to keep costs in line.
At a board meeting this week, Fay said that to the extent that costs are higher than they might otherwise be, it is because the district encourages community and school faculty input on wants and needs and tries to accommodate those requests.
Ramsey said the district has effective mechanisms to hold down costs and said De Anza came in millions under budget.
"We do what are called constructability reviews, vetting and estimators," Ramsey said. "They look at the designs and price them out and make sure there are price controls."
Butt, whose local architectural firm has donated more than $65,000 to campaigns to pass the bonds and received more than $9 million in work, wrote an op-ed on his website praising the bond program and criticizing this newspaper's reports about its costs.
"The bond program was built around standards rather than budgets," Butt wrote. "It would not be fair to reduce the quality of future schools just because previous ones in other neighborhoods were built less expensively at the bottom of the recession."
But taxpayer fatigue in the district, which has more than 50 schools and about 30,000 students, may have set in during the latter stages of a more than decade-long program to rebuild an aging educational infrastructure.
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 the existing 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. In addition, property owners are paying parcel taxes to support the school district and West Contra Costa Healthcare District.
Meanwhile, the school district continues to be marred by concerns over safety and academic performance. A federal investigation of the district released last year revealed a pervasive environment of sexual harassment and assaults by students that school officials failed to adequately address.
"There is voter fatigue on bond measures and parcel taxes. We've seen it play out," said county Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond, who was a vocal supporter of a failed parcel tax last month to save Doctors Medical Center. "I do think there has been a need to rebuild facilities, but I think, right now, the greatest need is money in the classrooms."
Staff writer Theresa Harrington contributed to this report. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.