Bill McEwen

Bill McEwen: Madera County developers show their hands during school recall election

THE FRESNO BEE

The orchards have been pulled out and the earth has been made smooth near Avenue 12 and Highway 41 in Madera County. A canal has been built that will carry water through drought-parched land to a 2,000-acre master-planned community that boasts a new name, Riverstone.

Finally, 25 years after it was first pitched, Rio Mesa is starting to take shape.

And the developers are back to their old tricks of plunging knee deep into political campaigns.

Before I tell you what the developers are up to, let me back up a bit and tell you about the residents of Madera Ranchos, who will be neighbors to all the folks buying homes in Rio Mesa, a place that at build-out could total 100,000 people.

People in Madera Ranchos are passionate about education.

They demonstrated that by pulling off the herculean feat of breaking away from Madera Unified to form Golden Valley Unified School District in 1998 and then passing two construction bond measures, for $30 million in 1999 and $70 million in 2006.

Their efforts have borne fruit. The graduation rate at Liberty High School is 91.1 percent. The academic performance of all of their schools, as measured by the California Department of Education, is exemplary. Their athletics teams are known for winning.

These days, the passion is even higher than usual – and not just because football season is starting. Three trustees – Carla Neal, Kathleen Crumpton and John Moseley – are on the ballot in a recall election that will be held Tuesday.

Neal and Moseley are both in their first year, having won by 4 and 150 votes, respectively, last November. Crumpton first won election in 2010.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the forced resignation of Superintendent Andy Alvarado in February spurred the recall. Indeed, few things can divide a community, big or small, like a school board majority showing a superintendent to the door.

Mona Diaz, a former longtime trustee who is running for Neal’s seat, says that it took only nine days to gather enough signatures to trigger the election. Many residents, she says, were angered that they weren’t allowed to speak their mind about Alvarado’s departure.

“There were 450 people at that meeting,” Diaz says. “Boy, they were offended that they weren’t heard.”

But there’s another important component to the story.

The recall campaign, which had raised $13,550 through June 30, is being financed almost entirely by two developers: Igal Treibatch, who has proposed a development called Liberty Groves near Liberty High School, and Tim Jones, who has broken ground on the first phase of his five-village Riverstone project.

My four decades of reporting have taught me that large campaign contributors expect to influence their winning candidates. The fact that developers are underwriting the recall campaign suggests that it is more than just a grass-roots reaction to the loss of a popular superintendent. In addition, there are big unanswered questions about a school construction financing agreement that the Golden Valley board hammered out long ago with a previous developer that sought to build on the land now owned by Riverstone.

In an April 1 email to the school district, a bonds attorney for Madera County said that some provisions of that agreement “would be difficult to enforce in the face of a legal challenge. As such, we would not be able to opine about the validity of these provisions.”

Thus there is a likelihood that Riverstone will enter into negotiations on how much it must pay to build new schools within the district – and final approval, depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s election, could rest with board members that Riverstone helped put into office.

Neal and Moseley both say that their willingness to ask tough questions about the Riverstone school construction agreement is why they were targeted for the recall.

Moseley is a former deputy sheriff and now is a state-employed fact-finder for labor mediations. He also says that his tough questions about district finances rocked the boat with other board members.

Neal, a longtime teacher, is passionate about environmental issues as well as education. I imagine that she would be a thorn in the side of any developer appearing before the board.

Both sides in the recall have made many claims and counterclaims. You could spends months investigating, and never sort things out.

Suffice to say, emotions are running high.

My suggestion is that Madera Ranchos residents let go of their anger – regardless of the recall election’s outcome – and focus on the fact that big changes are coming, as more people move north and other Rio Mesa projects crank up in earnest.

Most of all, they need to check on campaign contribution reports in future elections. The big boys – developers and also construction companies eager to build schools – will spend heavily to put their favored candidates into office.

Bill McEwen is The Bee’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 559-441-6632 or via Twitter, @fresnomac.

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