By Miriam Raftery
An ECM Special Report
October 13, 2012 (El Cajon)—The San Diego Grand Jury has launched an investigation into possible misuse of bond funds by the Grossmont Union High School District’s board majority, muliple sources have confirmed to East County Magazine.
“We’re in a Grand Jury investigation about Alpine,” GUHSD board trustee Priscilla Schreiber told ECM. Schreiber said she learned of the probe “by accident” while in the District’s office. Schreiber has been a vocal critic of the Board majority (Trustees Gary Woods, Jim Kelly, and Robert Shields) for blocking construction of a high school for Alpine while allowing diversion of school bond funds for costly new projects not mandated in two bond measures, Prop H and Prop U. Both measures were approved by voters and specifically called for a new high school in Alpine.
The District purchased land for the project, but later refused to build the school. Instead, the Board majority has allocated millions for projects not listed in the bonds, such as new swimming pools and performing arts centers for multiple campuses.
Schreiber, who is on the bond subcommittee, said staff expanded multi-purpose facilities on all campuses approved in the bond measure into plans for more elaborate performing art centers. “Our bond was only supposed to be used to improve facilities with 16,000 square foot multi-purpose facilities. But our staff inflated that into these performing art centers with 35,000 square feet." This would have inflated costs by $40 million, said Schreiber. “I stopped the process, but Helix got through," she says, adding that the Board never approved the expenditure. "Now, Grossmont wants one.”
She voiced outrage over the actions. “It’s just immoral that the board majority will do what they did to Alpine. The Boundary Committee Chairman said it would be prudent to build the Alpine High School and recapture 250 to 380 students from charter schools, and regain the ADA (average daily attendance) money.”
Schreiber also faults fellow Board members for lack of transparency. “"They do things in the dark...In July 2011, the board president brought a resolution to kill the 12th high school. We amended it with a 3-2 vote to continue the building plans for Alpine to the Department of State Architecture (DSA). The Superintendent and the Board President pulled those from DSA without board authority. I found out by accident. This is the public's business and they are doing it in the dark.”
Others level equally harsh criticism.
“The Grand Jury investigation into the use of bond money by the GUHSD does not surprise me,” Doug Deane, past co-chair of the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce Education Committee and chair of the GUHSD Boundary Committee. “I believe that the GUHSD Board has been at the very least irresponsible, and at worst negligent, in their use of Prop. U bond money.”
Deane, who said he has not been contacted by the Grand Jury, added, “To have evicted residents, using their powers of Eminent Domain, from the Lazy A Ranch, and then halt the [Alpine High School[ project due to petty political differences among the GUHSD Board members, is irresponsible behavior. Many of the evicted residents had lived on that site for decades, and they’ve now been uprooted from their lifelong homes for apparently no reason.”
He noted that there is a theory among Alpine residents that” some conservative members of the GUHSD Board shut down work on the Alpine High School because the residents objected to naming the school `Ronald Reagan High School.’ I give credence to this theory, and if it’s true, it is despicable behavior on the part of the GUHSD Trustees.” The GUHSD disbanded its naming committee after Alpine residents, including Viejas tribal leaders, objected to sending their children to a school named after Reagan, who slashed funds for Indian healthcare, denigrated Native Americans and in Hollywood, starred in movies in which he killed Indians.
Deane predicted that trustees would deny that they killed the high school project out of spite. “They will trot out the enrollment trigger, and current enrollment statistics, showing that they had legal cause to stop construction. What they don’t say is that studies which they conducted as part of the 2011 Boundary Study, which I chaired, show that the new high school would more than likely have paid for itself, in terms of students recaptured into the District from local charter and private schools.”
The Board ignored Deane’s recommendations and opted for a boundary redistricting plan that assumes no new high school will be built in Alpine, quashing hopes of parents and students.
Deane further blasted the District for using Alpine High School construction funds to build “swimming pools and sports fields” for existing high schools “while the safety and educational needs of Alpine, Harbison Canyon and Blossom Valley students go unmet.” Numerous Alpine students have been killed in vehicle accidents community up to 30 miles to schools on roads that can be icy during winter months.
Fed-up Alpine residents are now making plans to bolt from the District altogether. They are seeking to have the Alpine Unified School District, currently serving K-8, expand to serve high school students as well in order to finally get a high school built in the community.
“Alpine has no recourse but to investigate unification of its existing school district, and it’s aggressively doing so,” said Deane. “The GUHSD conservative board members have demonstrated themselves to be wholly lacking in concern for the educational needs of the East County, and appear to be driven by the advancement of their own political, social and personal agendas.”
Shields defended his views on opposing funds to build Alpine’s High School back in February 2011.
“I have very serious concerns about operational costs,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience vote to increase our fixed costs,” he said, adding that a future vote on construction bidding will likely face stiff opposition from him. “As long as teachers face layoffs and class sizes are bigger, I could not support money to build a new high school.”
In April 2011, Kelly made this statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune to justify his flip-flopping on the Alpine High School. “When the board said repeatedly we will build this school, I assure you it was in good faith, but the situation has changed,” Kelly said, citing the state budget crisis and declining enrollment as his chief reasons for invoking a trigger clause and refusing to support construction.
Bill Weaver served on the Bond Oversight Committee. “Prop H in 2000 set aside $73 million for the new high school,” he noted. “There was a long range master plan in 2003; this was the single largest budget item in Prop H.” But in 2007 Alpine residents were told that the District didn’t have enough money and a new bond would be needed. Voters passed Prop U and all projects from Prop H were to be priorities.
But after buying land for the Alpine High School, the district “claimed it doesn’t have funds to operate the Alpine high school and has refused to build it,” said Weaver. He faults the district for squandering those funds on sports fields, pools and other items that while worthy “should not be at the expense of the 12th high school.”
Weaver, a parent frustrated by the Board majority’s actions, is now running for a seat on the GUHSD Board and hopes to replace Woods, who is up for reelection in November.
The Board majority has been embroiled in other controversies recently. It violated District policy by initially approving new District boundaries without first notifying parents of middle schools that feed into the GUHSD or allowing them to voice their views.
“It became a nightmare; parents were protesting,” Schreiber said of the boundary brouhaha…This prompted a special board meeting; I read the board policy and asked the board to rescind and do it right, but they wouldn't."
Documents obtained by ECM suggest that the Board may also be in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The District has consulted multiple legal authorities to render opinions on whether or not it is in violation; if so the District would be mandated to redraw trustees’ districts to increase representation of minorities.
Curiously, an e-mail sent by Superintendent Ralf Swenson to an outside attorney hired by the district to prepare a report on whether the District was in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act indicated that Swenson had destroyed the report unread, determining that it was not needed.
On July 11, 2011, Swenson sent an e-mail to Peter Fagen and others at the law firm of Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost regarding a document titled Risk Assessment under the CA Voting Rights Act 07-11-11.
The Superintendent’s e-mail stated, “Our Board has decided to make their own decision regarding legal counsel in support of their consideration of the CVRA issue. Given that decision, I am returning your email (and the attached PDF document) to your office without having read your Risk Assessment. I did open the document when I received your email earlier today, printed it and set it aside to read later. Upon consultation with Scott Patterson I have decided to shred the document without reading it and to delete the email in which it was transmitted. Your efforts in responding to our initial inquiry are much appreciated. “
ECM obtained the e-mail under a Public Records Act request. The Risk Assessment report referenced was not attached.
Why was a report paid for with taxpayer dollars was destroyed and its contents kept secret from the public?
At a meeting of the GUHSD trustees back on February 11, 2011, Supervisor Dianne Jacob chastised the Board for its efforts to renege on promises made to Alpine. To delay a new campus for Alpine “would break faith with the community of Alpine and with me,” she said emphatically. “No less than the public trust is at stake here—and the public doesn’t need any more reason to distrust government.”
She added that authorizing construction would be fiscally responsible due to the cost of construction costs being lower during a recession than later on. “I’m here to gently remind you that a promise is a promise,” she concluded.
A spokesman for Jacob noted that due to secrecy of Grand Jury proceedings, her office can neither confirm nor deny if she has been in contact with the Grand Jury.