Shiny Buildings, Shady Dealings 

West Contra Costa Unified has plenty of money for school construction and not enough for education, thanks to two board members.

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Then the virtually same thing happened again earlier this month. The Richmond City Council asked voters to approve a sales tax hike, part of the revenue from which would have gone to fund educational programs in the school district. It failed by a fourteen-point margin.

To Kris Hunt of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, it's obvious why the last two tax measures failed: "I think people are saying they're taxed to the max."

But even those not associated with the anti-tax movement have come to the same conclusion. In an editorial published last month opposing the sales tax, the CoCo Times laid it out similarly: "District voters are taxed-out, already paying for two other district parcel taxes to fund school operations as well as bond programs to finance one of the state's largest construction programs. The district has gone to the well too many times."

As a result, West Contra Costa has plenty of money to build beautiful buildings like the Performing Arts Center, but is still having trouble funding basic education.

This fact comes into sharper relief now, as California faces a monumental budget gap, and school districts throughout the state wrestle with potentially disastrous, largely unprecedented cuts. Over the course of the past several months, thousands of teachers have been laid off, arts and athletic programs have been eliminated, and academic programs have been slimmed, tinkered with, and trimmed to within an inch of their lives. This is the reality of a still-flagging economy and a state budget that can no longer sustain itself, and it's a fact of life in every school district up and down the state.

On June 28, the West Contra Costa school board is expected to pass a balanced budget, but it wasn't easy: In March, the district slashed 138 jobs, and in April, another fourteen were eliminated. Moreover, the latest cuts came after a rough several years for the district. Kronenberg and Ramsey readily acknowledge that West Contra Costa has spent the last several years cutting programs and services that many other districts consider untouchable. "We've already made the big cuts," Ramsey noted.

The school district, for example, does not have crossing guards or elementary-school music programs, has already enacted furloughs, recently cut lifetime and family benefits for staff, and has "hardly any" school nurses, Kronenberg noted. At the same time, the district had to rely on one-time stimulus funds to stay in the black this year, and Ramsey acknowledged that, depending on state funding, the 2012-13 school year could bring a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

In a particularly ironic twist, if those doomsday scenarios do come true, West Contra Costa could eventually be in a position where it can no longer afford the janitorial and grounds-keeping staff it needs to adequately maintain its expensive new buildings.

While it's not illegal, or even particularly uncommon, for unions and firms with no-bid government contracts to donate heavily to political candidates, it can raise questions about where a school board member's priorities lie and whether they feel beholden to their donors.

But Kronenberg said it was state school finance law that played a major role in her decision to select the construction bond measure over the parcel tax measure last year. "What's privileged construction over academics is the state," she said. "We didn't create the law that says bond measures only need 55 percent of the vote to pass. Because of this, it's harder for you to get programs for academics than it is for you to build a new school."

Indeed, it's a sad irony that Prop 39, which was intended to make it easier for communities to fund construction projects, may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging districts to push construction bonds, even as they struggle to find the funds that parcel taxes would pay for.

Moreover, it appears that another institutional factor may be facilitating West Contra Costa's construction program: The district's school board elections, unlike presidential and congressional elections, don't have campaign-contribution caps. The logic for this, presumably, is that the stakes are low enough and the contributions relatively small in local elections that caps would only serve as an added, unnecessary layer of red tape. But in West Contra Costa, where construction-related companies and unions have become accustomed to writing big campaign checks, questions of undue influence are becoming more common.

Ramsey, however, flatly rejected the suggestion that the questions about his priorities and allegiances might decrease if the district implemented contribution caps. "Campaign finance [reform] has been a failure," he said.

However, Jason Freeman — a school board candidate who was outspent by Ramsey by a ratio of about ten to one in last November's election — argues that the district's lax campaign finance rules allow for a few large interests to exert greater control over the outcome of political races. "What makes this kind of race so different from every other race is that it's unregulated," Freeman said.

"When people talk about money in politics, they're talking about presidential and congressional races where there's a lot of regulation," he continued. "This is a totally different ballgame because there's just no rules — and those big checks come with there being no rules."

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided by one of the consulting companies that oversaw the El Cerrito High renovation, Landry and Bogan, a previous version of this article misstated the cost of the Performing Arts Center.

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