YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Conejo District's Bond Project List Is No Education

Schools: Officials decline to release details of how $97 million will be spent if voters pass ballot measure. Critics are outraged and warn it could erode support.


THOUSAND OAKS — Amid growing pressure to detail why it needs the largest bond measure in Ventura County history, Conejo Valley Unified School District officials on Tuesday released a few examples of proposed renovations, but stopped short of providing a detailed list of campus improvements.

Although district officials say they are not acting any differently than other school districts have done when seeking bonds, critics say they will need substantially more details before they vote to approve $97 million worth of funding.

"General numbers are not OK," said Robin Westmiller, a mother of three children in district schools who is one of the most vocal opponents of Measure Q. "When the government comes to you and asks you for money and you say, 'Why?' and they say, 'Because,' and just ignore your request for a specific list, well that's ludicrous and condescending."

District administrators have declined to be specific because of concerns that residents would take a premature list of maintenance needs as a guarantee. Inflation and actual bidding prices could change the final costs, officials say. Instead, school officials released a list of what it would generally take to modernize a typical elementary, middle and high school in the 26-campus district.

Gary Mortimer, the district's assistant superintendent of business services, defended the district's decision, saying such disclosure at this point would mean distributing inaccurate, preliminary estimates.

Mortimer said Conejo Valley Unified is following the same procedure used by other districts to determine their upgrading needs--using a state modernization formula of $44 per square foot to determine a ballpark figure for the renovations. Only if the bond passes would the district then begin using engineers and architects to specifically gauge the costs, he said.

"Show me a company that puts together a detailed list and I'll show [you] a company that spends money needlessly," Mortimer said. "We are not prepared to release [any more information] because the school board hasn't yet approved the projects."

However, Mortimer added that he would provide cost estimates regarding individual schools to interested parents and voters who contact the district directly.

A look at other school districts throughout the county shows that school officials are divided on whether to release detailed lists of planned improvements when asking voters to approve bond measures.

Sandra Herrera, assistant superintendent of the Oxnard School District, said that only after Oxnard voters passed a $57-million bond in June did school officials determine exact costs for individual projects with help from paid experts, parents and faculty.

"We didn't develop an itemized list because the specifics of doing that, like hiring an architectural firm, takes a lot of money," Herrera said. "The process of input comes after the money comes through."

Before the Oxnard bond measure passed, Herrera said, the school district only issued a one-sheet flier to the public listing general improvements that needed to be made at all the affected schools. "Periodically, we'd get a phone call," Herrera said. "And we'd let that person know, on an individual basis, what projects were going to be done at a specific school."

That was basically the same routine used by the Ventura Unified School District when it was trying to get the word out about its successful $81-million bond campaign this year, according to Joe Richards, assistant superintendent of business services. Though the district hired an architect to figure out what each school needed on a project-by-project basis, officials never did release an itemized list to the public, he said.

"We gave out information if someone wanted to know," Richards said. "But people were more interested in the general, not the specific. Of course, if we heard from the public that they would have wanted a specific list, it would have been in our best interest to do so.

"It gets dangerous any time you put out numbers, because they're just estimates, projections," he added. "If your actual plans do vary [later on], people will think you weren't being honest."

By contrast, officials at Camarillo's Pleasant Valley School District, which is asking voters to approve a $49-million bond measure this fall after four unsuccessful attempts to get a bond passed this decade, have decided to be as specific as possible when describing their renovation needs, according to Associate Supt. Howard Hamilton.

The district has distributed a one-page sheet detailing in general what the $49 million would be used for with cost estimates, but also has made a more detailed list available, Hamilton said. The figures come from a master plan for improvements that Pleasant Valley conducted in 1991 with help from an architectural firm.

Los Angeles Times Articles