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A debate is brewing over whether the citizens tasked with overseeing Proposition S, the $2.1 billion facilities bond for San Diego Unified schools, are supposed to oversee decisions before or after they are made.

“The staff is trying to turn it into a hindsight committee,” said John Stump, an attorney who is a member of the committee. He added, “If we have to wait until an audit comes out, the money will be spent and everything will be moot.”

The question has become a pressing one as the oversight committee tackles the controversial issue of whether the school district should enter into a project labor agreement with unions that trades work rules and other guarantees for a promise not to strike on the job. It has already formed a separate subcommittee to weigh the issue and create a report for the whole oversight committee.

But staffers argue that that is not the proper role for the committee and that issuing an opinion on the project labor agreement is beyond its powers.

San Diego Unified attorney Mark Bresee opined that the committee is supposed to handle “rear view mirror” oversight functions such as reviewing how bond money is spent and telling the public about its conclusions. It is not supposed to make decisions about projects beforehand “or to establish its own priorities regarding the expenditure of bond funds for qualified purposes,” Bresee wrote in a memo to the board.

That alarmed committee members and observers who felt the group would be hamstrung by that approach. Stump said it “goes against the plain meaning of the law.” Deanna Spehn, who was recommended to the committee by the county Taxpayers Association, said it posed challenges for the group, but was unsure about how it fit with the law.

“It was an interesting interpretation of what I thought the role of the committee is,” Spehn said. She added, “There was a lot of information put out to the public prior to the vote on what was going to be included in Prop. S and what the voters could count on from the district. I anticipated that the (committee) would be evaluating the performance of the district in meeting those obligations.”

Dorothy Leonard, who led the oversight committee of the last San Diego Unified bond, said her committee actively reviewed plans before they were carried out. It recommended that the school board find a way to monitor whether contractors were complying with prevailing wage laws, she said.

“That is certainly different than what we did,” Leonard said of the new description of the oversight committee as a “rear view” group. “They can only look after the fact and say, ‘Hey, you did this wrong.’”

Jim Ryan, executive vice president of the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors, which has opposed the move toward a project labor agreement, sent out an e-mail that blasted the “rear view mirror” idea.

“The (independent citizens oversight committee) is supposed to be an ‘independent’ body,” Ryan wrote. “If it is concerned about any costs associated with Prop S, it must have the right to investigate.”

The question is likely to come up at the oversight committee meeting this Wednesday. Check back for more details soon. I’m waiting on a bunch of phone calls.

EMILY ALPERT

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