In the midst of a federal investigation of Fresno Unified’s use of public bond money, the district is asking voters to consider passing a new bond measure in 2016.
Fresno Unified will conduct a public survey next month to gauge voters’ interest in a potential bond that could mean an additional $200 million for school facilities, based on preliminary estimates.
The school board voted last week to pay more than $40,000 to FM3 to conduct the survey. The district has hired the company in the past to measure the feasibility of a bond and to research voter perceptions. The survey will ask voters how well they believe schools are performing and their views about the district’s financial management, among other things.
But an FBI probe of the district’s no-bid contracts funded by Measure Q – a $280 million bond passed in 2010 – has raised concerns about the passage of future bonds.
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Trustee Carol Mills said it’s only fair that the survey, which will be given over the phone to hundreds of potential voters, addresses the ongoing investigation of the district.
In August, the district was served with a federal grand jury subpoena that demands answers about its use of the controversial leaseback financing method, which skirts the traditional bidding process for projects.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” Mills said. “We’ve certainly been under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism for how some of the Measure Q money was spent, and I think we need to ask those questions in the polling. The types of questions all seem to be focused around, ‘Does the community feel that we need more money for school facilities?’ but a lot of people can agree with that. The critical question – the bottom line – is will people support a bond?”
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian said schools need the money, but he voted against moving forward with polling, saying he won’t commit to any bond efforts until he is promised leaseback contracts are a thing of the past.
The district won’t commit to changing the bidding process and so I can’t go out to my constituents and say we should do a bond.
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian
The district’s $37 million leaseback contract with Harris Construction to build Gaston Middle School has landed it in court, and the State Supreme Court in August gave an attorney the go-ahead to move forward with his accusations that the district deliberately misused the financing method in order to secure the deal to its contractor of choice.
Since then, districts across the state, including Los Angeles Unified, have backed off of leaseback projects. Fresno Unified has stayed quiet about its plans for future use of the method.
“For me to support the ballot measure, it would have to be a low-bid process. On Measure Q, we didn’t let the public know we were going to do lease-leaseback, and here we are today. The district won’t commit to changing the bidding process and so I can’t go out to my constituents and say we should do a bond,” Ashjian said. “The sad part is our children need the facilities. So the question is this: Is the administration going to block our children from having these facilities by continuing the path of lease-leaseback, or are they going to open the doors and give kids what they deserve?”
Karin Temple, chief operations officer for the district, said it was premature to answer that question.
“We’re not even at that point – that’s not something we’re even discussing. Right now we’re just preliminarily gathering information about public support,” she said. “There’s been no action to place a bond measure on the ballot, we’re just testing the waters. What we need to know is, what does the community think and will they want this?”
Board President Luis Chavez said the need for funding is there, but before he supports a bond he needs to see a process “where we ensure transparency, oversight, scrutiny and the most efficient delivery method for contracts of school construction projects.
“There is no doubt that our schools are in need of investment … however, the community has to feel confident that we are being good stewards of tax dollars,” he said.
Ashjian also has voiced concerns about the district’s follow-through on its promises from Measure Q. Before Fresno Unified put Measure Q up for a vote, about 75 percent of voters polled by FM3 said they would approve of a bond if its main focus was career-technical education, in order to secure jobs for students after high school.
A boost for career-tech became the focal point of the Measure Q campaign. According to campaign literature and the Facilities Master Plan, which outlined priorities for Measure Q money based on community input, $12 million was supposed to be put toward career technical education facilities.
But that never happened.
In terms of a more general question, has Measure Q kept its commitments? I would say absolutely yes.
Fresno Unified Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple
“What we told the community we were going to do and what it looks like today are two totally different things. Nobody would dispute that the buildings don’t look fantastic. I think the question is, does it play out with what we said we were going to do and ultimately, what we did do?” Ashjian said.
“Why are we playing games with voters? The voters thought that they were going to be able to send their kids to programs that would make them skilled workers and lead to good-paying jobs. What they didn’t realize was that all they were going to get was a classroom that taught cooking or another computer lab.”
Fresno Unified contends that it comes down to the language on the Measure Q ballot. The ballot promised to “upgrade vocational education classrooms,” and Temple says the district has done that at several high schools. Additionally, about half of the money set aside for career-tech education efforts was used to build the Phillip J. Patiño School of Entrepreneurship, which teaches students how to run their own businesses by graduation.
“Measure Q has kept its commitments to the voters … The ballot measure is what the district is committed to fulfilling, and the ballot was very clear about what we were committed to doing,” Temple said. “In terms of a more general question, has Measure Q kept its commitments? I would say absolutely yes.”
“When you do polling for the community, in general, what the community perceives as the No. 1 priority is usually CTE, but the district has to make its own priorities, and for us, it was replacement of classrooms,” Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias added.
Financial reports for Measure Q funds are available to the public online, but they are broken down by school projects. There is no breakdown of how it matches up to the master plan originally presented to the public.