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School districts in San Diego County are meeting most of their promises to voters when it comes to completing construction projects, delivering 93.4 percent of the projects that were planned when voters opted to approve the funding, a report by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association found.

But the taxpayer group is worried that inconsistent practices for choosing construction companies could open up school districts to favoritism or simply stop them from choosing the best company.

“Several school districts seem to have a system that is set up to benefit companies that know how to play the game,” said Lani Lutar, president of the association. Companies that donate to districts, for instance, might be able to get an unfair edge in the selection process, she said.

“You’re never going to be able to eliminate unfair practices and unethical practices from occurring completely,” Lutar added. “But through good public policy, you can minimize it.”

For instance, only one of the school districts it surveyed, South Bay Union School District, includes information about how it weighs different criteria when it evaluates which companies to use for construction work. Without that information, the criteria are up for interpretation and “therefore provide little accountability,” the report concluded. It recommended that school districts use “an objective, standardized scoring system” when choosing companies that doesn’t depend on price.

What happens without an objective system? Voiceofsandiego.org earlier delved into how companies were ranked in Sweetwater Union High School District and found that ranking high was no guarantee of winning work, rendering the rankings meaningless.

The taxpayer group was also concerned that few school districts spelled out on their websites who had donated to the district, elected officials, the bond campaign or school foundations. While that information is available elsewhere — campaigns have to list their donors on reports kept by the county registrar — the taxpayer group argued it should be more accessible to the public.

The report also noted that the state budget crunch has hurt school districts that are relying on matching money from the state to help their bond projects along. For instance, Santee schools have delayed school construction and renovation projects that relied on state money from 2009 to 2011 or later, according to the report. That could be a growing drag on school construction, Lutar said.

Lutar declined to say specifically which companies or donors helped to fund the report because they are still raising money to continue the project. The report thanks several construction and management companies, but Lutar said some simply reviewed drafts or provided input, rather than funding.

You can read the full report, including profiles of more than a dozen school districts and community college districts that have a construction bond, here.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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