Controversy Erupts Over Cold Spring School District’s Measure L

By Nick Schou   |   October 22, 2020

There’s a long history in Montecito of well-intentioned yet pricey local school bond measures that have failed to win at the ballot box. In 2012, Montecito Union School unsuccessfully sought to raise $27 million for various campus improvements, an effort that collapsed under the weight of criticism by property tax paying opponents who viewed it as excessively grandiose.

Temporary classrooms at Cold Spring School

The most recent example of the complicated nature of tying classroom infrastructure to local property taxes is Measure L, a $7.8 million bond proposal by Cold Spring School District to replace three temporary structures (one of which no longer exists) with permanent classrooms.

Two weeks ago, the Journal gave a “qualified” endorsement to Measure L, which declared that the infrastructure upgrades were worthy of funding but that the district’s past record of fiscal mismanagement, which largely predate the current administration and Board, had led to “valid” concerns as well as certain “reservations and ambivalence on the part of some community members.”

And when Cold Spring School Superintendent and Principal Amy Alzina made her pitch on behalf of Measure L to the Montecito Association Board of Directors during its monthly Zoom meeting on October 13, the response was somewhat less than effusive. Following a brief presentation by Cold Spring parent and Measure L advocate Dylan Johnson, as well as a two-minute public comment rebuttal by local resident and anti-Measure L activist Denice Spangler Adams, the 10-member board handed Alzina a resounding shrug in the form of three yes votes and seven abstentions.

According to Sharon Byrne, Montecito Association’s executive director, the board’s refusal to endorse Measure L was somewhat of a shock.

“I was very taken aback by it,” Byrne said. “Some of the board members don’t live in the Cold Spring School District so their feeling was they shouldn’t be endorsing a parcel tax in an area they don’t live in. Other people don’t have children in the school district and felt they weren’t a stakeholder and other people didn’t know enough of the pros and cons to make an endorsement,” she said.

Several residents told the Journal they didn’t know about Measure L until they read about it in the newspaper two weeks ago. One of them, Don Miller, posted a photograph of it on Nextdoor.com. “It got a pretty big response and evolved in a direction that I had no idea where it was going,” Miller said. “It took on a life of its own.”

Adams, a long-time critic of Cold Spring School’s administration, was the only member of the public to address Measure L during the Montecito Association’s meeting. During her allotted two minutes of public comment, she incorrectly accused the group of violating the Brown Act (as a non-governmental agency, the group isn’t subject to it) and also prophesied that the Journal would publish a Measure L expose that would shame any member of the board who voted to endorse the initiative.

“I think the community is about to be duped and about to be conned,” Adams told the board before being cut off after her two minutes expired. “Eighty-seven percent of the community were not informed. We will be asking for a forensic audit of the school. Please, I urge you not to take a position on it… You will regret it!”

The Journal did in fact explore the controversy over Measure L, interviewing several local residents, as well as current and former parents of Cold Spring School students. While none of them claimed to have any specific gripes over the goal of Measure L – i.e. improving the aging infrastructure of a century-old campus – they blame the controversy on a pattern of lack of community engagement going back well before the tenure of Alzina, who joined the school three years ago.

Part of the problem, critics say, is the fact that many residents who are being asked to pay for the bond package – an annual homeowner’s tax amounting to $11-14 per $100,000 of each parcel’s assessed value – are essentially absentee landlords who neither have children at the school nor have received any notice whatsoever of the proposed tax.

“There is an aspect of people finding out about this who are pissed off that all of a sudden they are being asked to pay $7.8 million,” said Kathy Davidson, a former Cold Spring parent and district trustee who opposes Measure L. “The school regularly communicates with the parent body but does not communicate with the 87 percent of the electorate who does not currently have kids at the school.”

Davidson said she resigned her position on the school board after her complaints about lack of community engagement went unheard. “I served on the board for two and a half years and it got too much for me,” she said. “There were too many conversations and decisions happening outside the public eye, and I was made to feel that, by asking questions, I was being disrespectful and mucking up the works.”

Amanda Rowan, a school parent and Measure L critic, said her concerns about Cold Spring School go back years. She said her good-faith effort to address policy questions and other decisions led to her being ostracized by Cold Spring officials. “People were coming after me, threatening me,” she said. “I didn’t go to school for two months because I was sure they were going to harass me.”

After Alzina became principal and superintendent of Cold Spring School, she hired a survey company to ask local residents if they were in favor of a bond measure to fix the problem, which reported 71 percent support for the spending. “It was overwhelmingly positive,” Alzina said. “We have a genuine need for these classrooms to be replaced. They are on their last legs.” Alzina laments that the debate over Measure L has devolved into personal attacks. “It’s unfortunate that a small handful of people can be so toxic that they try to hurt their neighborhood school. It’s extremely hurtful, but we rise above. I will always put myself out there to do what’s best for our kids.”

 

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