The Napa County grand jury issued a report last Tuesday criticizing the Napa Valley Unified School District as well as a citizens oversight committee regarding Measure H, the $269 million school bond narrowly approved by voters in 2016.
The grand jury launched its investigation after receiving complaints from residents about NVUSD’s handling of its budgets and Measure H bonds, including a complaint from a member of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee.
The May 29 report from the grand jury concluded the school district and the oversight committee are not being sufficiently transparent when it comes to the spending of Measure H monies or cost overruns associated with a long list of school projects known as the Facilities Master Plan.
The report noted that NVUSD has been experiencing “severe cost escalation” with its $500 million master plan, which was the justification for Measure H and lays out a host of school construction and upgrade projects needed throughout the district.
The cost escalation is having “a pronounced negative impact” on the master plan, the grand jury said.
Its report further stated that taxpayers “are not being fully informed of the status of the plan and budget overruns,” which are due to “a lack of transparency” by NVUSD and a “lack of independent communication” from the Bond Oversight Committee to the public.
“The public deserves to know what is happening with their tax dollars, given that there is a high likelihood that taxpayers will be asked to approve an additional bond measure in order to fund all the projects in the Facilities Master Plan,” the grand jury stated in its report summary.
The grand jury recommended the NVUSD Board of Education take steps to “strengthen the independence” of the oversight committee with the purpose of improving transparency and increasing the level of communication with the public about important school construction projects.
The school district on Friday offered an initial response to the report, saying NVUSD “has a history of successful bond oversight efforts,” according to spokesperson Elizabeth Emmett. She added the final reports from previous measures are available on their website, www.nvusd.k12.ca.us.
“The Measure H effort is no different,” said Emmett. The oversight committee has “met every outreach and reporting deadline it has set for itself, and will continue to do that.”
As far as the grand jury’s findings and recommendations are concerned, “we have mixed reactions,” she said.
Some of the findings “are stipulated, some are misleading in their presentation and some are incorrect,” Emmett said.
The school board will provide a fuller, official response to the findings within 60 days.
The grand jury decided to delve into the Measure H issue after receiving several requests from citizens to investigate various aspects of NVUSD operating budgets and the school bond.
Leon Brauning, a member of the oversight committee and a director with the Napa County Taxpayers Association, said Friday that he submitted his own complaint to the grand jury after the school district informed the committee about cost overruns that were eating into Measure H funding.
Brauning called the overruns “a bombshell” that was dropped on the oversight committee in May.
The taxpayer advocate said he has concerns with how the committee has been operating. “I’ve been struggling with this committee to get it to do its job,” he said, adding that meeting minutes have not been detailed enough and claiming many committee members say or do little at their meetings.
But Brauning also said the committee is limited under state law with what it can do, or actions it can take. “We can’t sue the district,” for example, he said of the committee, which lacks authority or “teeth.”
Overall, his concerns rest more with the school district than the oversight committee, he said.
The school district went to voters with Measure H in 2016 after compiling a long and expensive list of school projects, some of which arose following the August 2014 earthquake.
The $505 million Facilities Master Plan covers the construction of new campuses for Napa Junction Elementary School in American Canyon and Snow Elementary School and Stone Bridge School in Napa because of their locations atop earthquake faults.
The plan is also supposed to address seismic upgrades at other NVUSD schools, security infrastructure including new fences and gates, a district-wide technology upgrade and other improvements.
Although the plan’s total cost exceeds half a billion dollars, the district chose to ask voters to authorize the issuance of only $269 million in bonds. Officials said they would make up the difference by applying for state funding, through the sale of district properties, and the use of developer fees from new residential projects.
With more projects than money readily available, the district prioritized the master plan into tiers, with safety and security concerns placed at the top.
Following the June 2016 primary election, Measure H initially failed to meet the necessary 55 percent voter threshold for approval. It wasn’t until all the absentee ballots were counted three weeks after the election that Measure H squeaked by, 55.99 percent to 44.01 percent, according to the grand jury report.
The measure exceeded the 55 percent threshold by only 350 votes out of 35,000 cast, the report said.
With Measure H approved, NVUSD officials formed the Bond Oversight Committee as required under state law to review expenditures, inform the public and issue an annual report to the school board. The committee is comprised of 10 local residents serving as representatives of parents, business organizations and taxpayer groups.
The grand jury attended the oversight committee’s meetings in September and December 2017 and in January, March, and May 2018.
Its report included numerous findings such as:
— The $505 million Facilities Master Plan, first created in 2014, is outdated and underfunded and does not reflect current construction costs.
— Construction costs for many NVUSD projects are running 30-500 percent higher than the district originally estimated.
— NVUSD’s ability to fund all master plan projects is at further risk because the state of California has not disbursed district-anticipated funds and has not guaranteed it will do so.
— A new $346 million “Implementation Plan” introduced by NVUSD staff in May 2018 does not clearly identify which items from the original master plan are being reprioritized.
— The bylaws of the Bond Oversight Committee have not been followed as written with regard to the creation of subcommittees, the creation of staggered terms, and the frequency of meetings.
— Neither NVUSD nor the Bond Oversight Committee is fully informing county taxpayers on a timely basis of the status of Measure H bond expenditures or cost escalations.
— The Bond Oversight Committee has not issued a required annual report or communicated with the public in any way during its first 18 months.
The grand jury also provided several recommendations for NVUSD and the oversight committee to follow.
First, its report said the committee should communicate to the public at least twice annually about Measure H project status and costs.
Second, the school board should strengthen the oversight committee’s independence by revising its bylaws no later than Aug. 31, 2018, in order to create subcommittees and establish a set meeting frequency.
Third, NVUSD Staff should revise the original $505 million Facilities Master Plan to reflect which projects will be executed through the new Implementation Plan and which projects will be deferred until new funds become available. The revised plan should be posted to the NVUSD website no later than Oct. 31, 2018, and be kept current, the grand jury said.
Fourth, the school board should provide training to the oversight committee from organizations such as the 21st Century School Fund or the California League of Bond Oversight Committees so committee members have access to best practices for citizen oversight of public school construction programs. Access to training should take place by fall 2018, the grand jury recommended.
Emmett said two of the four recommendations — the second and third ones—are in place and will be discussed at the school board’s June 14 meeting.
She also encouraged residents to check out the oversight committee’s web pages at www.nvusd.k12.ca.us/boc that contains project information, committee minutes and more.
All committee meetings are open to the public, she added.