Guest commentary: Voters should flunk Measure E

By Richard Soderholm, guest commentary © 2014 Bay Area News Group
Posted: 05/18/2014

"We all want good schools and good education .... But that doesn't justify reckless spending and election deception" to promote a school-bond measure.

The shell game includes a misleading ballot-pamphlet analysis by county counsel and an incomplete tax-rate statement by a local school district's chief administrator -- declarations in which they conveniently leave out bond measures already passed and the resultant tax rate already in effect.

Those are among this paper's rationales for its well-reasoned opposition to Measure H, the West Contra Costa Unified School District's new $270 Million bond measure on the June 3 ballot (editorial, April 7).

They are also good reasons for voters to oppose Measure E, the Contra Costa Community College District's own $450 million bond measure, though the paper supports that one.

Local property owners are already paying off $406 million (with interest, perhaps a billion dollars altogether) in CCCCD bonds passed in 2002 and 2006. With interest again added now, Measure E would obligate local taxpayers for approximately $1 billion more.

The anticipated new tax rate, $13 per $100,000 in assessed valuation, would double the existing rate for CCCCD-specific taxes. But that existing tax rate and the previous bond measures go carefully unmentioned in county-counsel and district statements regarding Measure E in the ballot booklet. Additionally:

CCCCD alleged "nearly 60,000 students" during its 2002 bond campaign. Now, they say, it's "over 55,000 students." Both figures represent single-course enrollees; the better enrollment indicator is full-time-equivalent students (FTEs). That criterion also reveals that district attendance has in fact declined, now to 29,885 FTEs from a high of 32,524 in 2002-03.

CCCCD's budget has nevertheless increased from $113 million in 2001-02 to $168 million now -- nearly a 49 percent boost, while the Bay Area consumer price index has increased only 30 percent. Disproportionate salary and benefit increases are the reason.

New local facility taxes, compensating for CCCCD's ongoing building-maintenance neglect, would leave more general-fund dollars for additional raises. So the district's misleading claim that no Measure E money would provide compensation increases is a bait-and-switch con game.

Measure E's advocates trumpet another "Independent Citizens' Oversight" committee to ensure spending as advertised, i.e., to validate expenditures opponents have identified upfront as invalid. In fact, college district personnel have nominated all 11 positions for the "independent" committee, which "oversees" the district's 2002 and 2006 bond-measure spending.

As the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association has stated in its ballot argument opposing Measure E, the district's "construction policies reduce competition," with work "done by the favored few at higher cost." The district euphemistically calls these costly featherbed schemes "Project Stabilization Agreements."

Measure E's tax promoters claim "prudent, fiscally responsible practices" on the part of CCCCD, ignoring the district's involvement in serious scandals over the years. In 1996, for example, the district spent at least $41,952 in taxpayer dollars to fund that year's bond campaign. Such spending was impermissible to begin with, and later a CCCCD foundation paid a $16,000 fine for failure to report it.

The same foundation has reportedly provided $50,000 in tax-exempt funds for the Measure E campaign now, adding to the take from the district's vendors of goods and services. In contrast, any opposition is funded with after-tax dollars.

In 2003, the district admitted registering hundreds of high school students in "concurrent enrollment" P.E. classes. That scam padded enrollment figures, double dipped from taxpayer funds and enriched CCCCD's budget. In 2007, a six-year grade-changing scandal was exposed.

CCCCD's 2006 bond campaign featured campus-specific "Vote Yes on Measure A" fliers distributed to students at college buildings. A similarly cozy intersection of district resources is apparently underway now: The "Yes on E" campaign website domain was registered by CCCCD's director of communications and community relations, listing the registrant organization as CCCCD itself.

Voters wisely rejected the district's parcel-tax measure in 2012. Sensible voters will flunk Measure E now.

Richard Soderholm is a retired naval officer and a former civil grand jury member.