Sweetwater schools spent more than half a million dollars out of its school construction bond last year on one project: Telling people how they were spending money from their school construction bond.

The money comes out of Proposition O, a $644 million bond that South Bay voters passed almost five years ago to pay for repairs and upgrades in the Sweetwater Union High School District, including removing asbestos, improving accessibility for the disabled, and upgrading science labs and technology.

More than $520,000 last year alone bought Sweetwater a website with photos and webcams of buildings under construction. It paid for outreach to everyone from the National City Rotary Club to the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, city councils, construction companies, parents, teachers and principals.

It bought email updates and press releases, construction tours for reporters and booths at school open houses. It bought a Facebook page, Twitter updates and a hotline for questions about the bond. All of that and more is laid out in a neat 43-page report complete with praising quotes.

The half-million tab falls in line with the previous annual communications on the bond, its manager said.

Interim Superintendent Edward Brand said parents and community members chided Sweetwater for not communicating clearly about its plans under its last bond. Some families were upset it built gymnasiums before fixing up classrooms. So Sweetwater decided to invest in communications this time.

“We immediately had people coming to our office, wanting to meet with us,” National City Mayor Ron Morrison said. “It was like an 180-degree difference from before.”

Sweetwater is spending more on communications than other local school districts that have passed bonds, including larger bonds at San Diego Unified and the San Diego Community College District. And tracking Sweetwater’s communication costs can be difficult because they’re subcontracted out of a bigger contract for the bond’s management.

Brand said the school district had gotten less criticism this time around on its bond. But not everyone is pleased. Sweetwater is trying to recover from a series of scandals that sent former Superintendent Jesus Gandara packing. One issue was how much Sweetwater was devoting to public relations: The Union-Tribune revealed the district had hired two public relations firms under the aegis of its law firm, much like the bond contract.

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“It astounds me that they’re spending that much,” said Stewart Payne, a parent and vocal critic of how the Sweetwater bond has been run. “What are these people doing?”

Sweetwater chose an outside firm, SGI Construction Management, to oversee its construction bond for three years at a cost of $16.4 million. One of its duties was to handle communications. SGI subcontracted with Marston + Marston Inc. to do that.

“We wanted to communicate as much as possible. I don’t know of any bond program doing this as well,” program manager Jaime Ortiz said. “It’s not tooting our own horn. It’s making people more informed.”

SGI has stayed under its budget to manage the bond, earning $3.21 million instead of $3.78 million last year, according to Sweetwater. But within that budget, the Marston workers who handle communications and outreach have billed more hours than expected.

Outside communications and outreach were expected to involve 1,700 to 3,000 hours annually under the staffing plan included in the SGI contract; Marston employees billed 4,700 hours last school year. CEO Myrna Marston said the company conducted a survey to judge the effectiveness of the outreach, incurring many of the extra hours.

When first asked about the Marston costs this summer, Sweetwater said it did not have a breakdown of subconsultant costs. We filed a request under the Public Records Act to get invoices and exhibits to calculate how much Marston employees billed.

The bond oversight committee talked about the communications spending two and a half years ago, weighing whether it was meant to promote the bond or just inform people about it. The committee decided it was informational and concluded there were “no issues with outreach spending.”

Chris Cate, vice president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said the amount spent on communications was concerning, even though the larger contract was under budget.

“Every dollar that is going to something other than construction is taking away from the building of a classroom,” Cate said. “Other districts are finding ways to do it cheaper.”

Sweetwater spent more on communications than other nearby school districts that have passed bonds to build or renovate schools: San Diego Unified pays roughly $439,000 for four employees who handle communications and business outreach on a $2.1 billion bond that dwarfs the Sweetwater bond.

The San Diego Community College District says it spent just shy of $240,000 last year on communications and outreach for its $870 million bond, also larger than the Sweetwater bond.

Grossmont Union High School District has a smaller bond than Sweetwater — $417 million — and spent roughly $21,000 in two years for minimal outreach. Other school districts did much less outreach than Sweetwater and left it up to their ordinary staff, making it hard to untangle the exact costs.

Superintendent Brand argued that school districts that do not get outside help end up getting distracted from their ordinary duties.

Bernardo Vasquez, a parent who leads the bond oversight committee, said Sweetwater was difficult to compare to other districts because of its size and the many different communities it needs to inform.

The attorney general has opined that schools can use construction funds to run their bond program, paying their own staff or hiring outside firms to handle it. But nobody at the state office could remember it weighing in on using bond money for communications.

Gafcon CEO Yehudi Gaffen said while including communications in a bond is not typical, it is becoming more common among public agencies. School districts rely on bonds to fix up schools.

“Without open, accurate and honest communication and transparency to the people who voted to tax themselves it becomes very difficult to ‘go back to the well’ which most districts will need to do in the future,” Gaffen wrote in an email.

Anton Jungherr, executive director of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees, argued that it was inappropriate to spend any money for school construction on communications at all.

“School construction money is to build buildings, not to promote school district construction projects,” Jungherr said.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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

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