Shouldn’t We Try to Do Better?

By Gwyn Lurie   |   November 5, 2020

My friend’s mother used to say: “Just because you’re the loudest, doesn’t mean you’re right.” From time to time I invoke this during vociferous dinner table debates amongst members of my family. But in a world where facts go unchecked on social media platforms, where vocal minorities can represent anything as truth, it can be hard to ascertain what’s what. 

This seems to be the case with the campaigns being waged, both for and against, Cold Spring School’s Measure L Bond. From both opponents and supportes have come accusations of bullying and misinformation and sadly, this debate seems to have devolved in a way that is not helpful to voters who are just trying to make an informed decision. But more importantly, the conversation has taken on a vituperative and scorched-earth tone mirroring our degraded national discourse. Can’t we do better or at least shouldn’t we try?

Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of this or any bond. Even people who love children and believe strongly in the importance of education can legitimately side against a school bond measure, which are historically unpopular. 

To be clear, we have no horse in this race. While the Journal gave Measure L a qualified endorsement which we stand by, the only outcome we are deeply invested in is the truth.

Because in Montecito our local schools are primarily community funded – 14% of our property tax dollars go to our schools – and because our property values are higher than in some other Community Funded districts, like Santa Barbara for example, Cold Spring and Montecito Union School (MUS) historically have more money to spend on instruction, per kid, than many other schools. This can give the impression that our local schools are financially set. But maintaining school facilities is expensive and not maintaining them can be financially ruinous. 

Having chaired the MUS School board in 2012 during our district’s failed 27-million-dollar bond attempt, I learned some important lessons: 

Foremost, I learned that most people don’t want their taxes raised, period. Even though it can be argued that improving a community’s schools improves local property values.

I learned it is hard to get community members to pay attention to even the most important ballot initiatives until very close to an election, when residents who normally don’t have much reason to pay attention to what’s going on with local schools, can suddenly feel they’ve been blindsided – sometimes despite a school’s best efforts to keep the community informed.

I also learned that there is no replacement for actively working well in advance of an election to educate community members as to why a school feels it needs community support through a bond. 

Finally, I learned that even a small group of aggrieved neighbors or community members can have an outsized influence on a bond’s outcome through powerful messaging – fact-based or not. And that sometimes, such messaging can threaten not only the bond measure’s outcome, but the reputations of the school itself. And that was before local social media platforms like Nextdoor existed. My takeaway was that working to build bridges even with those who oppose you is important, and in doing so you may even find some unlikely allies. 

Bonds are complicated, and it is easy to get the facts wrong. Even in our own reporting we’ve made a mistake. Last week MJ’s Nick Schou misreported the cost of the bond to the taxpayer as being approximately $100 dollars per $100,000 of assessed property value. The correct number is somewhere between 11 and 14 dollars per $100,000 of assessed property value. That’s a big difference to be sure and we apologize for that error.

To be clear, the Montecito Journal has no horse in this race. While the Journal gave Measure L a qualified endorsement, which we still stand by, the only outcome we are committed to is an accurate reporting of the facts.

Over the past few weeks we have received a number of letters from bond opponents which include charges against Cold Spring School, charges we’ve seen repeated in social and other media, that are quite serious. Some of these charges appear to be unfounded, while others we have been simply unable to verify. These charges pertain not only to Measure L, but involve the reputations of members of Cold Springs’ staff, faculty, and its Board of Trustees. So we take this very seriously. This is a small town and these dustups affect people we know and respect on both sides. So we feel it is incumbant upon us to try to provide as much transparency as possible for our readers.  

It is for this reason that Nick Schou and I reached out to Dr. Amy Alzina, Cold Spring’s Superintendent, and Jennifer Miller, the District’s School Board President, to ask some clarifying questions and to give them a forum with which to address thsese charges in thier own words. 

We hope you find this helpful. 

MJ: Why does the district need a $7.8 million bond for facilities improvements?

Dr. Alzina: This number is coming from not just my administration, but the prior administration. There’s a facilities master plan that was created in 2006 in which these needs were identified and have been put off and several bond measures have failed. As you know, school districts don’t get money for facilities. If you use money for facilities, it takes away from your educational program. And we don’t want to take away from our education program. We’ve been the highest performing district in the state for the last two years. And one way you avoid using funds you need for education, is to ask your community to support facilities and our ask is at $7.8 billion. 

Some have questioned the timing of this bond. So why now?

Dr. Alzina: The reason why we’re asking now, in the middle of a pandemic, is because interest rates are at an all-time low. So we’re trying to be mindful of our taxpayers. The tax could be as low as $11 for $100,000 of assessed value or as much as $14.

It’s about our kids. And it’s also about us. We are a community that has a vision and we need to replace those portables. No public school in the State of California should have portable classrooms. And I’ve been an advocate, as you know, for that when I was in Santa Barbara Unified and when I was at Adams School. We got rid of portables, our portable library and built in a state-of-the-art library and classroom and in turn, student achievement increased and so did home values. So everyone benefits when you support your local school.

Why is it better to be in permanent structures than bungalows?

Dr. Alzina: It’s the health and safety of our students. The portable that we removed last year had mold growing in it. That’s not okay. And we know through studies that that happens in portable classrooms because of water erosion, the sprinkler system or the rotting, the aging. Portables aren’t meant to be long-term structures. They were never designed to replace permanent structures. And unfortunately, in public education, we’ve settled in and that’s what has happened.

Our vision is to create indoor-outdoor learning spaces. Especially with COVID we’re having to do that. Portable classrooms don’t allow you to do that because there’s no space for students to have that indoor, flexible learning space. And these new spaces are really designed around students. Before, you would have a classroom and say, “Okay, now, students will fit into that classroom.” Now, we’re designing spaces based on the needs of our students. We are creating project-based learning experiences for our students, so what type of equipment, what type of learning is the flexible learning spaces for our kids?

And we’re wanting to reach outside of our community. We’ve already had community partnerships. I had a superintendent come yesterday onto our campus and look at our flexible learning spaces and say, “Okay, this is how to do it.”

And same thing with our STEAM [Science, Technology, Arts and Math] program. I have superintendents and principals always looking at what type of educational program are you offering and what is your vision? And as we’re creating it, we share what we’ve learned and so they can replicate that at their school site. So our new STEAM classroom, which we need, is really meant to be a learning hub for teachers and for students.

And we have Westmont students that come down and they serve and support our students. And they’re learning best teaching practices. And so we are growing in it and it is our desire to be that space and with our partner college, that students teachers come in and they leave as exceptional teachers in the field of education.

One criticism is that you have a million dollars in reserves. Why don’t you just spend it on this?

Dr. Alzina: So, I think this piece is hard for people to understand. Even educators sometimes don’t understand this piece, that especially for Basic Aid districts (Community Funded schools) our income [from property taxes] comes in only twice a year. So we have to build up our reserves so we can pay the bills so we don’t have to take out a loan.

We are constantly lending money to ourselves. When I came here our reserves were at 5% and the County said, “You’re in trouble here because you might have to take out what’s called a Trans [loan]; you’re going to have to borrow money, which means you’re basically throwing money away, because the interest rates are very high.”

And so we built up our reserves to 25%, so that we can pay the bills and that we have a little bit of a cushion for when there’s a pandemic. Like remote learning or in-person learning, you can pull from that.

Critics are saying that money from Cold Spring’s still outstanding 2008 Measure C bond is being used to fund your current Measure L campaign. Is that true?

Dr. Alzina: Measure C Bond funds have only been used to fund school projects that are authorized by Measure C.

Just to be clear, you are saying that no leftover Measure C cash has been spent on Measure L?

Dr. Alzina: Back in 2008, the district went out for a $14 million bond, that bond measure failed, then they went the same year for a $2.4 million bond, which was Measure C, which passed. But there was a $12 million discrepancy between the need for upgrades and what we got. That Measure C money was used for the library and auditorium. There are minutes all the way up to 2013 about how that money was used. There was $139k left from Measure C. None of that money was used for Measure L. No funds from Measure C have been used for Measure L. But there is a huge need because the facilities master plan in 2008 identified a need of $14 million and we only got $2 million. With Measure L, we are only going for $7.8 million to get three new classrooms, but we will also use the $139,000 left over from Measure C to help pay for modernizing classrooms. We’d like to continue the modernizing and get it all done and Measure L will also support that effort as well. Our goal is to get everything done. We don’t want to have to go back to the taxpayers again.

Is it true that – on April 9, 2018 – four of the five board members voted to move $117,000 from Fund 21 (the Measure C bond monies fund) to “reimburse” the district’s Fund 40 Special Reserve for Capital Outlay Project? Monies from Fund 40 had been used to pay expenditures in preparation for a new, proposed bond measure, L2020?

Dr. Alzina: In April of 2018, the District transferred $117,177.00 from Fund 21 (Measure C) to Fund 40 (Board’s Special Capital Improvement Reserve) to reimburse the District for architectural fees (KBZ Architects) for design work related to improvements on the campus. Before taking action, the Board consulted with Bond Counsel, David Casnocha of Stradling, Yocca, Carlson & Rauth. The District was advised that the expenditure for the architectural fees was proper and authorized under Measure C. The expenditure was originally made from Fund 40. The District reimbursed Fund 40 for the expenditure. Fund 40 has not been used to pay any expenditures in preparation for the Bond Measure L2020. Fund 40 has not been utilized in the last 24 months for any capital expenditures or any other expenditures. This statement by the opposition is simply false. Fund 21, nor Fund 40 were utilized to pay for the survey or any planning work related to the Bond.

Was there a Citizens’ Oversight Committee for Measure C, though this predates your arrival?

Dr. Alzina: Measure C does have a Citizens’ Oversight Committee that has been dormant since my tenure at the District. The Committee was formed in 2009 and met continuously through 2013. Our records show that the last committee meeting was held in 2013. Minutes of that meeting are on file at the District office. All the financial and performance audits of the Bond funds are on file with the District and can be provided upon request. The last record of the Citizens’ Oversight Committee shows the following membership: Gwen Stauffer, Mick Thomas, Mike Randolph, Diane Morgan, Marc Winnikoff. The committee records show four vacancies on the Committee. 

Some critics are accusing the district of deficit spending. Is that true?

Dr. Alzina: No, we have never deficit-spent in my tenure here. I’ve been here three-plus years. So we started with a 5% reserve. We built it at each year. We’re now at 25%. I was very transparent with the board in May that because we want to provide our in-person learning as we re-enter, we’re going to need additional teachers. So, we may have to dip into reserves. And again, I’ve been super transparent. I said with that we may have to dip into reserves.

To add a teacher, to make the class sizes smaller for social distancing, when you provide a robust remote learning program, there’s added cost to materials as you’re doing the packet pickup and manipulatives and making sure every student has a book, those type of materials. And then switching to in-person, you’re making sure everybody has their own set of manipulatives that nobody can touch. Because you can no longer share materials. So for me, it’s really important that everyone understands that we’ve been fiscally responsible in ensuring that our students come first and maintaining not only a balanced budget but increasing our reserve for the last three years.

This question is for Jennifer [Miller], as School Board Chair. One accusation we’ve heard is that there’s a conflict of interest in you serving as both School Board chair and you are on the ballot committee. Can you speak to that?

Miller: There is no conflict being in two different roles, supporting the bond. When I support the bond to the public, I support it as an individual parent for the school and I’m not representing the Board. I never represent the Board or have any of the power of the Board behind me when I ask the people to vote yes or no on the bond. I’m doing it as a parent, as well as a person on the bond committee. So as long as there’s a division of that power and you make it clear when you’re talking to people, there’s no conflict.

And was the board vote to go forward with the bond unanimous?

Miller: Yes.

Okay. Another charge is that you’ve neglected your facilities for a very long time.

Dr. Alzina: Yeah. And that’s also painful because despite building up our reserves, we’ve also spent $350,000 during my time here on much-needed facilities improvements, including replacing our inefficient furnaces, replacing skylights that were not functional, replacing lighting in our classrooms, getting new hardware to provide additional campus security because security was a priority for us. Replacing projectors. [which] were very old. Students couldn’t even see the boards. So we replaced all of them.

We replaced furniture in our fourth- through sixth-grade classrooms with new furniture, which we’re now using for outdoor classrooms. Then we replaced a leaky roof and made many other improvements. So we have not neglected our facilities. We’ve made these improvements and funded them on operational and categorical grant revenues. We’ve had several water lines break. I mean, it’s an old campus. It’s 70 years old! And so that is much needed.

Unfortunately, one of the waterlines is portable and one of the classrooms flooded the day before remote learning. So, we did what we could to salvage that portable, to still use it. But clearly, that portable is on its last leg.

Ok. Let’s talk about your Chief Business Officer and Legal Counsel, Yuri Calderon. He was a well-regarded parent at MUS and many who know him are surprised to hear accusations of “self-dealing” or that he’s receiving a percentage of the bond. Please speak to this as someone’s reputation is at stake here.

Dr. Alzina: The Board hired Yuri as the legal counsel before I came on. And I quickly learned of his expertise with facilities because that is what he did with his independent consulting business. And I had a $250,000 Prop 39 grant and facilities grant that we had a deadline to spend. As superintendent and principal, I do not have expertise in facilities. So I recommended to the Board that we hire him for $10,000 and the board was happy to approve that.

Yuri helped us with all those facility improvements that I shared with you earlier. And we could do that because he was not an employee of the district. So it was separate. He was on a contract only as a legal counsel and again, for facilities. I also learned about his expertise in finance and we had had a lot of turnover in the business office. Therefore, I reached out to him and said, “Hey, look. I know you can do this job in less than five days. Can we hire you for three days a week as our CBO/legal counsel?” Because how nice is it as a superintendent principal to have legal counsel on retainer knowing that you’re not going to have legal bills through the roof, a win-win.

So we hired him as our CBO/legal counsel for three days a week. And because he’s now our employee, his facilities expertise is free. We have free legal expertise and we have, for free, balanced books, clear audits. That people are saying that the reason he wants this bond to pass is because he wants to manage this bond and he’s going to get 5% is absolutely not true. The fact is, when you’re an employee of the district, you cannot receive a dime of bond funds. Anything he does is out of the goodness of his heart to benefit the district. We are not giving him a dime.

Your STEAM teacher is being accused of only working 12 hours a week. Can you speak to that?

Dr. Alzina: This one pains me as well. Dr. [Jean] Gradias has a doctorate. She’s brilliant. She knows the standards better than any teacher I’ve ever worked with. She was a finalist for the Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year Award. As you know, you can have a great philosophy at STEAM of project-based learning and you can have these great projects, but if they’re not aligned to the standards, you’re not going to have results in student achievement. And the reason our math scores are off the charts is because both she and I work together. We look at our student data, we identify the holes… and that takes time. This teacher is more dedicated than I’ve ever seen before. I would say she works probably at least 60 hours a week.

Another charge is that the community was not well enough informed about this bond before it appeared on the ballot. Can you speak to that?

Dr. Alzina: Again, they’ve been talking about this as a facilities master plan since 2006. As a community member, you can choose to be involved as much as you want in your community school. You can attend board meetings. I do a weekly superintendent principal update and that’s posted on our website every Wednesday. Also we hired FM3. They are a bond consulting firm. We wanted to survey the community to see if this is something they wanted to support.

And this survey was going to go out literally the day the Thomas Fire broke out and we pulled it. Then we had the Thomas Fire, then we had the debris flow. We just put our facilities on hold. Then last fall, we went to the board and said, “What do you want to do? These are our needs. We can’t really put it off anymore.” So the survey went out last September/October to the community. I believe we had close to 100 responses. It’s very hard to get people to respond to surveys. It was done by telephone. We had 71% in favor of the bond.

Did you hold any community information meetings? Zoom or anything like that?

Dr. Alzina: I did a webinar that was open to the community in early October, in addition to all the School Board presentations. Yuri Calderon gave many Board presentations. I answered every question that was out there.

It’s being said that it’s a violation of the California Ed Code for a superintendent to ask their community for foundation funds. I know this is not true, but could you speak to that?

Dr. Alzina: Every year, our foundation reaches out to our parent community to support our specialist programs: art, music, STEAM, technology, and P.E., with a goal of getting around $1,200 for every student. But knowing that some families might only be able to give $10 or some might be able to give a lot more. But that’s just the goal. And that comes from the foundation. That doesn’t come from me. I did not ask one single soul for funds. I don’t like to make asks. I posted an informational piece in  my weekly letter and then that’s as far as I go.

So Jen, as the School Board Chair, what is your sense of how parents feel about this bond?

Miller: I would say every parent that I have talked to is in support of this bond. I think that this school is full of parents that want to support the school in every way possible and they see the need for the facilities improvements. It’s such a small amount of people that are making a lot of noise. And they have a lot of money and they’re able to afford these negative ads, and signs and mailers… We’ve had people that said that they would vote for it but won’t put up a sign because they’re afraid something will happen to them. And that’s scary.

So what have you learned from this? If anything. Do you think you could have done a better job of educating our community?

Miller: One of the things I always pride myself in doing well is sending out communication. I’m always like, “Tell your story. Tell your story, or somebody else will tell it for you.” But the challenge of telling your story right now is COVID. It would be great to have everyone come on campus to meet together but unfortunately we can’t do that. And so telling my story has been really challenging because I’ve had to use Zoom and webinars and letters, and not in person. And this is that piece, where we’re at right now which worries me as a country is that human connection, that piece that people are longing to have and without that, it’s really hard to connect. So I may have underestimated the challenge that I was about to face and how challenging it would be to tell our story. To get the truth out.

 

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