Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007 | It was summer of 1998, and the San Diego Unified School District was just months away from asking San Diego voters to approve the largest public works project in the county’s history. To overcome the Herculean task of receiving the required two-thirds approval from the voters, the district reached out to political leaders all over the community, asking them to sign on to a plan to rebuild crumbling schools and prepare the district for the rising tide of enrollment.

But two key holdouts remained: The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the county’s Taxpayers Association continued to withhold their support for Proposition MM, the $1.51 billion bond measure. The groups pointed to the district’s estimated $258 million maintenance backlog — work that should have been done to keep the school system’s facilities in shape but never was — and asked how they could be sure that San Diego Unified would take care of its facilities in the future, once the new schools promised by Proposition MM were built.

And so, in those waning days of June, the two sides struck a deal. Under the agreement made after a series of closed-door meetings, the taxpayer and business groups said they would back a plan that allowed the district to use bond dollars to eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog; in exchange, San Diego Unified vowed to spend enough of its own money in future years to, as the district’s press release put it at the time, “ensure that schools and classrooms are never allowed to deteriorate to a substandard level again.”

Now, with the amount of overdue maintenance exceeding $600 million by one estimate, there are questions about whether the district lived up to its word. The two sides cannot agree where the straightforward agreement went wrong, and the appearance of a broken promise is threatening the future of the district’s new bond measure, expected to go before voters in 2008.

Lani Lutar, taxpayers association president, says the district has fallen short of its pledge, and allowed leaky roofs, broken electric systems and aged concrete at the schools to go unfixed.

“There is no question that the district didn’t adequately meet its commitment,” Lutar said. “As a result of them not keeping their promises from Prop. MM, we will definitely be scrutinizing a future bond measure much more carefully.”

The district, however, argues that it has done its best to keep its classrooms and schools in top shape, given scarce state resources, rising construction costs and an ever-growing list of needs.

“My personal opinion, from inside the district, I do believe that we kept the commitments that were made in MM,” said Jim Watts, the district’s head of architecture.

The problem of deferred maintenance, bureaucratic jargon for long overdue major repairs and replacements of infrastructure, is not unique to San Diego Unified. Skimping on maintenance work has long been a favorite option for elected leaders in tough budget times because, unlike popular programs, government facilities have no vocal constituency lobbying on their behalf. The city of San Diego, for example, faces its own estimated deferred maintenance backlog as large as $1 billion.

What’s different in the case of the state’s second-largest school system is the unusual commitment the district made in 1998 to fix all of its facilities and keep them from falling back into neglect.

In spring of that year, a public working group of civic, business and education leaders was organized to review the district’s facilities needs. It concluded that paying off the district’s deferred maintenance should be San Diego Unified’s top priority for doling out its Proposition MM dollars.

“Members are adamant that any long-range plan for facilities must include funding to fix existing buildings and classrooms, and must allocate the necessary resources to ensure they are adequately maintained and never allowed to deteriorate to a sub-standard level again,” the Facilities Review Public Working Committee wrote in a report to the school board. “In fact, the Committee is opposed to the construction of new facilities unless the District can demonstrate it will preserve its current capital assets.”

That recommendation was codified in the agreement struck between the district and the business and taxpayer groups. The bond money would be used to wipe clean the backlog, and the district would put up the funds to keep it from reappearing.

“The deal was clear,” said Ron Ottinger, the former school board president who helped negotiate the agreement on behalf of the district.

However, problems appeared soon after the bond was passed. As San Diego Unified began repairing its facilities, Watts said, the district realized that it had greatly underestimated the amount work that needed to be done. At the same time, rising construction costs shrank the buying power of the $1.51 billion.

And the boost in enrollment predicted by the district never materialized; instead, student numbers plummeted and the school board voted on a series of painful budget cuts, including a reduction in the amount spent on maintenance.

Before he left the district last month, David Umstot, the school system’s previous facilities chief, told the school board the deferred maintenance backlog stood at $670 million, nearly three times the amount estimated in 1998. Under the deal struck by the district, the figure should be zero.

Other district officials now say the $670 million includes other planned construction and repairs that should not be counted as deferred maintenance, though district spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter admitted that the district currently has no idea what the correct figure should be.

However, there is agreement that the district has not spent enough in recent years to keep its buildings and sites from falling in disrepair.

“Some of it, quite frankly, is that we’re dealing with an issue that there is never enough funding,” Watts said. “We’re always in some condition of scarcity.”

Approximately five years ago, a consultant hired by an independent oversight committee set up as part of Proposition MM estimated that San Diego Unified needed to spend at least $62 million a year just to keep its maintenance backlog from growing. Instead, the district budgeted only $25 million, an amount that’s expected to fall to $18.2 million under a five-year deferred maintenance plan adopted by the school board in June, though the district hopes to receive some matching funds from the state.

Stuart MacDonald, vice chairman of the Proposition MM Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, said the district failed to invest enough into its infrastructure and instead chose to keep the dollars in the classroom, a move he said fell short of a broken promise.

“I think it started out with the expectation, and I say expectation as opposed to promise, that the maintenance backlog would be cleaned up, and that funding for major repair and replacement would be kept current every year,” MacDonald said. “That expectation, I think, has proven impossible to meet.”

“It certainly is a disappointment — to me as a voter, to me as an ICOC member, to me, somebody who’s really interested in school education, and the facilities are really just a part of that — that the expectation couldn’t be met,” he said.

Superintendent Carl Cohn said he worries that the promises made in 1998 could derail another $1.5 billion bond measure the district plans to put on the ballot next November, with a significant portion of the bond to be earmarked for paying down the maintenance backlog that’s not supposed to exist. Though the district now needs to receive support from only 55 percent of the electorate, as long as at least four school board members vote in favor of the bond, it faces new challenges that weren’t present in 1998.

The district began preparing for Proposition MM as early as 1994, forming local community planning groups to assemble a list of projects that could be funded by the bond. By contrast, the district has barely begun work on a 2008 bond measure, and hasn’t even completed a full needs assessment yet.

With district enrollment projected to continue declining over the next decade, the school system will also have to convince voters that it will need more money to educate fewer students. And many of San Diego Unified’s senior staff, including Umstot, who have coordinated the Proposition MM program through the years, have left the district, most since Chief Administrative Officer José Betancourt took over in 2005. Of the five trustees on the school board when the 1998 deal was struck, only one remains.

Watts argues the school system will be able to overcome these challenges.

“It just happens that we’ve had a fair amount of turnover in our facilities senior management. At least in my way of thinking, that’s not a deal-breaker,” he said. “Sure, it’s nicer to have more stability, but you have to continue moving forward to try to meet the needs for the kids.”

To build support for the new bond, the district will also have to explain to voters why it hasn’t lived up to the promise it made in 1998.

“The basic, if you will, commitment and the moral compact — not just with the taxpayers (association) but the voters — was that you would not need to come before them again to ask for bond money to eliminate deferred maintenance,” said Scott Barnett, the president of TaxpayersAdvocate.org who helped negotiate the Proposition MM deal on behalf of the taxpayers association. “That was the gentleman’s agreement.”

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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