ALPINE RESIDENTS SAY CITIZENS BOND OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE HAS FAILED IN ITS WATCHDOG ROLE OVER GUHSD, IGNORING GRAND JURY FINDINGS REGARDING ALPINE HIGH SCHOOL

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Resident submit signatures to unify AUSD, split off from Grossmont District

"How deaf can this CBOC be without being complicit and compliant with the Board Majority’s political bias towards Alpine, as cited by the Grand Jury?”—GUHSD trustee Priscilla Schreiber

By Miriam Raftery;  Janis Mork also contributed to this story

February 1, 2014 (Alpine) – At a contentious meeting of the Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD) Citizens Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) on January 30, Chris Loarie testified that the Alpine High School Citizens Committee  (AHSCC) has submitted final signatures to the County Office of Education for unification of the Alpine Union School District (AUSD).  Frustrated by the GUHSD board’s repeated  refusal to build an Alpine high school despite two bond measures for that purpose, Alpine parents aim to bolt from the Grossmont District and expand the AUSD to include high school students and ultimately, build a high school.

Others, including an attorney and a district trustee, are leveling sharp criticism at the CBOC for turning a blind-eye to findings of a Grand Jury report on the District’s failure to fulfill its promises to Alpine voters, a report titled “Fool me once, fool me twice.”  Critics contend that the CBOC has ignored facts and further, that the Chair has exhibited bias  and presented skewed information for oversight committee members.  

Attorney - Journalist Michael Waterman of La Mesa inquired why CBOC shouldn't inform the public that conditions for building the 12th high school have been met under the language of the bond, and because of increased per pupil funding to a level required by the Board. He also asked if the CBOC agrees or disagrees with the Grand Jury’s conclusions and further, asked the CBOC to inform he public that Prop U monies are being spent on projects never disclosed to voters in the bond project list. 

Waterman’s assertions are detailed in a letter to the CBOC, which can be viewed in part 1 and part 2 in a  draft response from CBOC Chair Nancy Herbst.  Herbst declined to answer Waterman’s questions on triggers being met and claimed the CBOC has not taken a position on the Grand Jury report and therefore could not respond to that question, either.  She further claimed that the CBOC was not aware of any determination that bond money is being spent on projects not disclosed to voters.

In a discussion among committee members, Jan Canel asked for “education from staff” on questions one and two, adding, I think we should be able to get an answer.” Herbst asked staff to bring a review of enrollment numbers to the next meeting.

GUHSD trustee Priscilla Schreiber urged members to look at the Grand Jury report “because they found in favor of the Alpine community.”   The committee indicated it had seen the report.

Member Robert Ball observed that it may be time to rethink  priorities and committee assignments, noting that both the Governing Board and the public want more information. “It seems we’re being chastised,” he observed.

Herbst (photo, right) recalled that the CBOC strongly advised trustees not to build the high school when an earlier trigger review occurred but that surprisingly, the trigger was met and the committee expected construction to move forward.  However the governing board “on its own set different priorities and said, `Let’s wait until the funding levels were there.”  Since the CBOC has had some turnover in memberships since then, she added, “Let’s have a conversation and formerly support or not support the District’s current position.  We can do that.” 

She offered a proposal that did little to add clarity, suggesting that the CBOC continue to decline to respond to Waterman’s questions, or alternately, indicate the committee would investigation matters he brought to their attention, perhaps referring Waterman to the committee’s public comment area. 

Ultimately, Herbst asked Steering and Planning Committees to work on the issues, have staff present info on enrollment trigger numbers and enrollment forecast, and  agreed to add to the next meeting’s agenda a discussion about the Grand Jury report.

Following the meeting, trustee Priscilla Schreiber sent an email with a blistering criticism of the committee’s past actions  to the committee secretary, asking that it be forwarded to members, attaching several documents. 

She urged that “for the CBOC members to garner a complete understanding of the Alpine matter, they need not be confined by the constraints/bias of the Chair…the CBOC is to be an independent body,” she said, citing  what she called a “one-sided perspective that the District Board/Superintendent dictates. “

In an e-mail to ECM, Schreiber revealed that the CBOC chair asked staff to bring copies of the 47-page Grand Jury report and the Board Majority’s response claiming declining enrollment (passed 3-2, with Schreiber and Jim Stieringer voting no). But the CBOC inexplicably failed to ask for the AHSCC’s blistering rebuttal  sent to the Grand Jury or a GUHSD Boundary Committee report that not only found enrollment triggers had been met, but further that the new high school would result in increased Average Daily Attendance revenues for the district. (See an editorial by Boundary Committee Chair Doug Deane's criticitizing the GUHSD, previously published in ECM.)

 “Seriously, requesting only documents that support what could be perceived as an anti-Alpine agenda does not serve the CBOC or the taxpayers they are supposed to represent,” Schreiber told ECM.  She called the referral of key issues to a subcommittee a stalling tactic by the CBOC chair.

She also accused the Chair of withholding key information from committee members.  “The body doesn’t even know that building the Alpine school was NEVER predicated on a district-wide enrollment until Mr. Kelly’s antics the night of the Bond vote,” she said, referring to GUHSD trustee Jim Kelly.  Building the Alpine high school was originally proposed to ease crowding at Granite Hills, she said, adding that Kelly inserted a trigger into a later bond as a “poison pill” aimed at killing the planned school.

Schreiber and Loarie both urged the CBOC to carefully weigh the ramifications of unification on the district and conduct an unbiased review.

Numerous individuals have also spoken out against the District using bond funds for projects not listed in the bonds approved by voters, including a new Performing Arts Center built (PAC) at Helix (photo, left), an aquatic center at Granite Hills and additional pools and PACs planned at other schools.  while halting plans for the Alpine high school amid claims of, among other things, insufficient funds to proceed with grading and construction.  Schreiber states pointedly, “The CBOC was complicit in supporting the Board violating their own Resolution on two counts. This did not go unnoticed by the community of Alpine or the Grand Jury.”  She added that the Board intent seems to be to “spend down every last dime so there is nothing left for Alpine.”

The GUHSD refused to heed the Grand Jury recommendation to provide a final answer to Alpine residents on whether or not it would build a high school in Alpine, or when.  Schreiber states that arguments that some CBOC members are new  is a “lame” argument. “It still happened on the Chair’s watch. Most of the longer serving members have no real knowledge of the Alpine issues because it has been kicked under the table.” She urged members to watch videos of past Board meetings to confirm her points, adding, “How deaf can this CBOC be without being complicit and compliant with the Board Majority’s political bias towards Alpine, as cited by the Grand Jury?”

Schreiber also blasted the GUHSD board for failing to seat an Alpine resident who sought to fill a vacancy on the CBOC and for not  announcing an opening to fill the seat of yet another member who has missed more meetings than allowed in bylaws, moves she believes are motivated by “political bias” to control what is intended to be a watchdog board for taxpayers. "Additionally, I was told by that applicant, that when she initially submitted her application she got a notice back stating she had missed the deadline to file. She said she clearly had not missed the deadline according to her timed stamped transmission to the District," Schreiber reveals.

Further she asked, “Should Alpine be successful in their unification efforts, will the settlement money become an issue that could potentially impact our general fund because all the bond monies will have been spent?”  She asked if bond dollars will be set aside for the purpose,” the concluded, “When will the CBOC pick up their charge and start working for the taxpayers and not the District? I have  faith that this group can.”

Schreiber isn’t the only one leveling serious complaints against the GUHSD.

The Alpine High School Citizens Committee (AHSCC)’s scathing rebuttal sent to the Grand Jury and Honorable Judge Robert J. Trentacosta called the District’s response misleading and factually incorrect.”  The group contends further that the District’s description of the AHSCC as “special interest advocates” is offensive and inaccurate. The group notes that Alpine residents twice voted for bond measures and that the AHSCC had obtained over 3,000 signatures in favor of unification as of the rebuttal sent last August.   “The desire of 3000+ citizens and the numerous school children who depend on them is a clarion call of an entire community that wants nothing more than their own local high school to house and educate their students,” the AHSCC rebuttal stated, urging the Grand Jury to stand by its findings.

The AHSCC rebuttal also took the District to task for failing to mention that two of five trustees voted against the District’s response, and for misleadingly telling the Grand Jury that Stieringer and Schreiber “have refused to participate in development of this document” with which they disagreed.

The rebuttal goes on to detail how enrollment figures were repeatedly met and that the district expended $20 million in bond funds to buy property, complete architectural plans and permits, file plans with the Division of State Architects (DSA) and select a contractor.  Yet Superintendent Ralf Swenson unilaterally pulled those plans from the DSA and the district failed to request bids. 

“GUSD is now arguing that the enrollment trigger is not met because of its own intentional failure to act during a 3 year span,” said the rebuttal from Alpine citizens, adding, “This is akin to a prisoner going on a hunger strike and claiming that he is being starved to death by the warden.”

The District’s tenuous claim that enrollment has declined omits attendance at charter schools Helix and Steel Canyon, even though the Prop U trigger required inclusion of all 11 schools in the District. 

“Why the omission?  It is because the two charter schools are bursting at the seams and are at capacity,” the rebuttal states. Moreover, findings of the Boundary Committee that a new high school would increase, not decrease both attendance and revenues has the effect to “completely neutralize GUHSD’s reliance on the declining enrollment argument,” the document indicates.  Further, the school would likely result in 400 Steele Canyon charter students  moving to the Alpine high school, bringing back ADA monies that currently do not flow to the district from the charter school.

Further, the District’s report to the Grand Jury omits the recent restoration of state funding and the economic recovery, the AHSCC charges. Moreover the 2013/14 state budget includes a new funding formula that increases ADA funding for every school district in California.

The rebuttal also takes the District to task for failing to spend bond money on installing solar panels, a move that has reduced operating costs for other districts that have done so. 

“Obviously, costly aquatic centers trump cost saving solar investments, yet somehow the new high school pushes their operating expenses over the edge. The hypocrisy of their position is self-evident,” the AHSCC rebuttal notes. Moreover, the AHSCC states the District used money from Prop H to pay off construction financing costs for West Hills and Steele Canyon High Schools, payments previously made from the GUHSD operating budget.

Nor is there a shortage of construction funds, since the GUHSD has received state matching funds and now has substantial reserves in excess of $70 million, the AHSCC rebuttal states.

The biggest losers in forcing Alpine parents to seek unification with the AUSD will be parents and students in Blossom Valley. These students would have gone to the new 12th high school in Alpine if built by the GUHSD.  But since Blossom Valley is not within the AUSD district boundaries, they cannot be included in a new Alpine unified school district, though inter-district transfers may be considered.

Alluding to the Grand Jury report’s title, “Fool me once, Fool me Twice,” the AHSCC calls the term an understatement, noting, “there have been many instances over the years of GUHSD making blatantly false promises to the citizens, taxpayers, parents, and most important, the students of Alpine.”  Such actions amount to “bait and switch” or “fraudulent inducement,” the AHSCC suggests, adding, “had this behavior taken place in the private sector it would have resulted in serious legal repercussions.”

The AHSCC concludes that “political infighting” among trustees on the GUHSD board is the real reason why an Alpine high school has not been built and never will be, which is “why the AHSCC and the citizens of Alpine have abandoned all hope and are seeking a divorce, through the process of unification, from the dysfunctional Board that exercises control over the high school education of its children.”

That frustration is echoed in a letter from Chris Loarie to trustee Dick Hoy, in which he reiterates many of the points made in the AHSCC rebuttal.  “I am not willing to sit on the sidelines, get taxed, and watch every other community see improvements to their schools (and me knowing that there is NOTHING coming,” he wrote. “The leadership by Spt. Swenson on this has been a disappointment. Props H and U were supposed to benefit everyone….WE HAVE NOTHING,” he concluded.

He further added that some CBOC members, past and present, are “appalled with the direction of program spending” and noted that no financial benchmarks have ever been imposed by the GUHSD on any  of the bond projects except Alpine’s long-awaited high school.

“My opinion is that Alpine should move on, unify," he said, voicing the sentiment shared by thousands of fed-up Alpine voters.  “If successful, that implies that GUHSD should be ready to deal with the financial realities and use the remaining bond program funds responsibly to reflect that reality.”

 He asked trustees to “push the pause button” before taking on more debt.  “If you spend it all as planned, how will you deal with a settlement?” he asked.  “I do not want to pay even more in my tax bill for GUHSD mistakes that would inevitably end at the feet of the taxpayer.”