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Friday, October 31, 2008

District Transparency and the Measure Q Oversight Committee

One of the big concerns that has arisen from the public with the issue of Measure W and the extension of the parcel tax to cover an additional $120 per parcel is that of accountability. In order to address that issue, the school board has incorporated into the proposal the creation of an oversight body appointed by school board members.

This has drawn some criticism as well, suggesting that these are just self-selected individuals by the board.

For that reason, I spoke at length to a member of the Measure Q Oversight Board, former school board candidate Bob Schelen. From his description of the process, there is really no reason to believe either that this board is a bunch of "yes" people to the district. Moreover, and as important, the process that Mr. Schelen describes is so open, that members of the public can come to these meetings and participate. If they have questions, they have opportunities to ask them of staff. In other words, any individual who truly is interested in oversight has no legitimate reason to complain about this process--they have every opportunity themselves to be their own watchdog of the district and how it spends money.

The Measure Q oversight board has now had three public meetings. The first meeting was an introductory meeting, followed by a meeting where the board went over material from Bruce Colby, the district Chief Budget Officer and his assistant.

The third meeting went over the calendar and discussed the report that would go to the school board in January.
"We're still working on looking at all the information provided us. I must say that the information provided has been completely transparent and Bruce Colby has been excellent in providing us the information that we need. All of us who are on the committee are extremely happy with the information that we have been provided and the transparency of the process."
Mr. Schelen went on to describe some of the process:
"They're showing us the budget. There are two or three different ways that they are doing it. One is there is a very detailed process of where all of the Measure Q money is going. For instance, in terms of what the Measure had said and where the money was going, there is a document showing which programs that the parcel tax provided for and how much of a percentage was. Because some of the money is percentage-wise of going to for instance the avid program or the counseling program end up at each different school.

So the way that they've done it is that they provide us by the percentage that the parcel tax pays for, both in terms of program personnel and schools. They've also provided us information in terms of the entire budget and how much a percentage of Measure Q is part of the entire budget. And they've developed one document that has all kinds of particular information. We have been looking at that as well as a document with more general process with the information. So where the money goes. The way that they have done it is provide it through the programs, personnel, and schools.

The first thing they have done, there have been a number of questions throughout our three meetings especially when we looked at the one document with all of the particular numbers, and there were a number of questions, and Bruce Colby and his assistant answered the question there but they also offered to allow members of the committee to meet with them individually and go through the book as well. Every question has been answered, there has not been one thing that has been asked that they've said we'll get back to you or that isn't an appropriate question for this group to ask--even if they've asked questions that might go beyond the budgeting of just the parcel tax, but the budgeting of the entire school district."
One of the major criticisms that has arose at least on this blog is the complaint that this is simply a handpicked group. Bob Schelen agrees that it is a handpicked group, but also believes that the group is fairly diverse and not a group of "yes" people or sycophants to the board.
"The people that have been picked have been people representative of the community. And not the only the school community but the entire community. I don't believe any of them are sycophants of the particular board members who picked them."
He points out his differences of opinion with some of the board members.
"I ran for school board against Richard [Harris] and Susan [Lovenburg] and am a part of the process. So I wouldn't necessarily say that I agree with everything that they think. As you know, I was a Valley Oak supporter, and neither one of them were."
Also on the board is former board member BJ Kline, who at times was a strong critic of the district's financing practices.
"Other people on the committee include BJ Kline, former school board member who had been somewhat critical of the way that school financing had been done in the past."
He believes this to be a strong and knowledgeable group of people.
"So I think that the people who are on the committee are people who will not be yes people to the school district. They're people who know school financing to the extent possible in California. And are people who are asking pertinent and sharp questions and answers are being provided."
One of the strengths of a diverse group is that even one dissenting individual can lead to a thorough questioning of particular concerns. I asked Bob Schelen whether this process has been primarily a consensus process that would allow individual input and questioning to come out or whether it has operated by majority rule which might quell the minority voice.
"So far it's been a consensus process for the very reason that the transparency of the school district has been something that has pleased all of us. When one person has a question, it is answered in such an open fashion that all of us get the answer, understand it, and are comfortable with it. So I would say so far it has been a consensus process, but that's only because we haven't had any strong disagreements yet--if we do."
Moreover just because there are ten board members does not mean that further opinions still cannot enter into the meetings. These are regular public meetings that operate under Brown Act principles of open government.

The public is encouraged to participate.
"We haven't had a lot of people come. We've urged and encouraged people to come to the meetings and not a whole lot of people have yet. In terms of any questions that they might have my understand from what we have said and what I have seen at the meetings, is that the financial part of the district is very open to answering questions from anybody. "
Unlike school board meetings, the public has ample opportunity to weigh in, especially if public attendance remains low.
"There is a public comment section. It's an agendized public board meeting. There are situations for public comment. Since we haven't had a large amount of people, at least at the one meeting where there were public people there, they were just sort of incorporated into the process of the committee and it was informal questioning of the materials that were provided by the district."
What Bob Schelen describes here is in many ways, interested members of the public can really weigh in and question process much like a board member could.
"That's the way that right now we're running the meeting. I can't be sure that's how we would run it if there say fifty members of the public coming to the meetings. But right now if there are a small amount of people then there's no question that that's what can and will happen."
In other words, after speaking with Bob Schelen, any individual concerned about accountability or whether this constitutes true oversight has a choice. If they are really concerned about how money is spent in the district, they can come to these meetings and get involved.

My concern with some of the complaints I hear is that these complaints come from individuals who seem to be looking for excuses not to vote for Measure W rather than truly concerned about issues and finding out information about the district's financing.

School finance is extremely complicated, but I have found people like Bruce Colby extremely accommodating to members of the public. This is an opportunity for those who claim they are concerned with accountability to actually get off the pot and do something about it.

The district's budget problems are very real and the district in my view has gone the extra mile really to make their process more transparent and make themselves more accountable to the public. This is a far cry from what happened four years ago. The days of quasi-closed door meetings that were of questionable legality are gone. The lengths that the previous administration and board had gone to keep things out of the public light was extraordinary. But so too is the extent to which the school district and board have gone in the other direction. Most of the complaints about this current board's fiscal policies are unfounded and based either on lack of understanding about school financing or frankly lack of interest by individual members of the public to learn about it.

The Measure Q oversight committee is a good way for the public to get more involved in the process and I strongly encourage members to go to these meetings. I intend to publicize the next meeting and attend it myself and report back on it.

---David M. Greenwald reporting