Update: February 13, 2013: Councilman Wells indicates that three months after this story ran, he has not been contacted by a Grand Jury and believes that he is not a target of the investigation.
By Miriam Raftery
November 5, 2012 (El Cajon ) – Updated November 6, 2012 -- Three people, including two members of the Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD) board, have confirmed that a Grand Jury is investigating why money from Prop H and Prop U was not used to fund a new high school in Alpine as mandated by the bond language.
El Cajon Councilman Bill Wells chaired the Prop H Citizens Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) and according to multiple witnesses, played a lead role in killing plans to build the district’s 12th high school in Alpine.
“The bottom line is that CBOC, under Wells et al, was doing exactly what Jim Kelly wanted them to do –nothing. The Oversight Committee provided zero oversight. That is one of the reasons the Prop H funds were so mismanaged,” charges Sal Casamassima, who served on the Bond Advisory Committee (BAC) formed to examine the CBOC’s review of Prop H funds.
Wells could not be reached comments as of press deadline. Both Wells and Kelly have contended that they opposed building the Alpine high school due to questions over costs, demographics and failing to meet an enrollment trigger. Following publication of this article, Wells sent an email pointing out that his service on the CBOC was as a community volunteer. He accuses critics of "distortions and untruths" published in our story, but has not yet provided specifics despite requests for details.
Casamassino says he became involved back in 2007, shortly before the BAC was created. He contends that the late Superintendent Terry Ryan, along with two others (Kiesling and Patterson) were “running Prop H out of their offices and signing off on change orders willy nilly. There was no project manager and without any meaningful oversight by CBOC, Prop H costs got out of control.” To solve cost overrun problems, he said, Ryan helped hatch a “ scheme to kill the Alpine high school. It was simply an easy way to control the hemorrhaging.”
The board majority, Priscilla Schreiber, Larry Urdahl and Dick Hoy, reacted in February 2007 by forming the BAC, over objections of then-board President Jim Kelly and Ryan. A BAC report recommended major reforms to the CBOC including hiring a project manager. “That’s when the real Hatfield and McCoy fight got underway, with the Alpine school becoming the pawn in the middle of the fight,” Casamassino recalled.
Later a second bond measure, Prop U, was approved by voters. But despite two bond measures both listing Alpine High School as the top priority, bond funds were later expended on projects not even listed in the bond measures, such as a new performing arts center at Helix, as well as projects perceived as luxuries such as a new swimming pool at Granite Hills.
Bill Weaver, a candidate for the GUHSD board and former chairman of the Alpine High School committee, has similar recollections of Wells’ role.
“Bill Wells was involved in the 12th high school debacle in the beginning as the Prop H CBOC initial chairman,” he told ECM in an e-mail. Wells was appointed by Kelly as chair of the CBOC in 2005.
“Wells did everything he could to support then Superintendent Terry Ryan’s claim that the $274 million Prop H was out of money and that the GUHSD wouldn’t be building a 12th high school as the bond stipulated after all,” Weaver said, noting that a Powerpoint made to the board emphasized why the district couldn’t build the promised 12th high school. He recalled a CBOC meeting in 2006 at which members discussed “how to let the word out of not building this bond project, without getting into trouble.”
He accused Wells of trying to “circumvent the 12th high school project” and making the high school a “sacrificial lamb.”
After Ryan retired for medical reasons (he later passed away of a brain tumor) the district hired Bob Collins as the new Superintendent. Collins was more supportive of a high school and even flew a contingent of architects and committee members—including Weaver—to Seattle to tour a model “small learning community” high school.
But Collins soon retired as well. “Kelly won that battle,” Weaver recalled. Subsequently Kelly stacked the CBOC with his appointees and the GUHSD hired Scott Patterson and Bob Kiesling as an in-house project management team, according to Weaver.
“It was the BAC (June 2007) report that busted open the “ridiculous” in-house project management quest,” said Weaver, noting that the team had no major project management experience “and were found to have wasted millions by the BAC Finance Committee report.” View the report: http://www.guhsd.net/index.php/component/docman/doc_download/466-guhsd-bond-advisory-commission-final-report
The report concluded that the Board must “restore public confidence and trust through effective oversight and management.” While acknowledging that construction costs had rise substantially, the report further blasted arguments that the high school was too expensive to build. “At first blush the “can’t afford” myth seems plausible but falls like a house of cards when you look at the underlying facts,” state the report, which concluded that the Board needed to live up to its promises to voters and build the 12th high school.
The District subsequently scrapped the team and instead hired Gafcon-Harris. But the problems continued even after passage of Prop U (and after Wells left the CBOC.) “The real problem is not money or bond capacity, but that by building and expanding in both scale and scope on so many projects like at the Granite Hills High School swim facilities (never envisioned so BIG) and the multi-purpose facilities all becoming full blown Performing Arts Centers, for example,” Weaver notes.
Charlene Ayers, a conservative blogger who runs the Ranter’s Roost discussion forum online in East County, has also blasted the CBOC and Wells' leadership. She also criticized Helix Water District member Chuck Muse.
“Chuck Muse and Bill Wells (both Kelly cronies) served on the Prop H CBOC from its start,” she told ECM in an e-mail. “Neither was in support of the 12th high school…Wells went out of his way to submarine it.”
As documentation of her claims, she provided notes that she took in meetings of the CBOC in 2007 and 2008.
Ayers described a July 25, 2007 CBOC meeting as a “gunfight at the not-so-okay corral”. James Perkins from the BAC told CBOC members that the BAC was going to recommended that all available funds be listed and dedicated to Prop H projects, and that there should be NO non-Prop H projects funded. He further recommended that the CBOC resolve deferred maintenance issues.
“Wells really wasn’t interested in that,” Ayers wrote at the time. She added that Wells proceeded to “take the high school out of the equation. He said that there is not enough money to do all the things on the list.”
Ayers said that Wells touted a district study that cited declining enrollment in feeder schools, but that Wells had arrived late at a prior board meeting at which “the District’s guy explained how primitive the District’s methodology is compared to SANDAG’s” which reached a different conclusion on enrollment. A new consultant then proposed that the CBOC prioritize projects and make a plan to complete the highest priority items.
“Wells says that sure is a lot of work. He’s not sure they could accomplish it in a year,” Ayers observed. She added that Wells rejected the “paradigm shift (can do attitude) regarding the new high school. He says that he is ready to move forward in a direction (without the high school) and that this group has no intention of moving forward toward (high school”, she concluded, adding that the meeting amounted to “a massacre.”
The June 2007 final report issued by the BAC confirmed Ayers’ recollection on the differences in the demographers’ findings and moreover concluded that “Second, we need to understand that demographic trends may also reflect and be a consequences of the lack of a 12th high school and the poor condition of our other schools.”
At an August 29, 2007 CBOC meeting, Ayers herself raised objections and noted that the BAC recommendations were to get all of the Prop H projects done. She also noted that Wells was ineligible to serve on the CBOC, since he did not have a student enrolled in the district at the time, yet was serving per Prop H language as the member with a student currently enrolled. But the CBOC declined to take action to replace Wells.
Ayers used particularly descriptive terms to describe a revised BAC matrix sent to CBOC members via email. “Kelly held it up with two fingers like it was a dead rat,” she recalled. “Wells said that it just looked like a rehash of the original recs and matrix, so the CBOCers were going to focus on the original recs and matrix when they gave them a thrashing, er examination.”
Kelly then claimed the new BAC matrix was “conjured up at a secret meeting attended by only two board members,” Ayers wrote, but added, “Schreiber rebutted Kelly. She said that all the Board members were invited to this meeting It was not secret at all.’
Ayers objected to the CBOC having no member with a pro-Alpine high school point of view, an allegation members denied.
The conservative blogger criticized the CBOC appointments as “vanity and/or political appointments,” then called it a “bad joke for the taxpayers.”
On April 30, 2008,Superintendent Collins spoke passionately in support of keeping promises to voters, particularly regarding the Alpine High School. But Ayers recalled, Collins was facing members of the CBOC who displayed “open hostility to completing all the projects in Prop H, especially their antipathy to the new high school in Alpine.”
Despite subsequent passage of Prop U, which also mandated construction of the Alpine High School as a top priority, the project remains sidetracked, though other non-essential projects have been built. Superintendent Ralf Swensen, unlike his predecessor, has sought to delay construction of the 12th high school.
The Board's handling of the Alpine High School twice approved by voters has drawn the ire of community leaders including Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "No less than the public trust is at stake," Jacob told the GUHSD board in February 2011. "I'm here to gently remind you that a promise is a promise."