Beyond the billions of dollars from construction bonds they spend after rigorous public debate, LA Unified school board members also have access to millions of additional dollars that they can spend without debate through a little-known program known as “board member priority projects.”
Posted on October 7, 2014 3:46 pm :: By rules in place since 2002, members have the discretion to spend the money on a project-by-project basis so long as the allocation falls within the guidelines of the bond measure from which it comes.
According to documents obtained by LA School Report, more than $15,517,000 in these priority funds have been spent or are scheduled to be spent since 2010.
The priority funds are bit of an oddity, in that they can be spent all at once on one project or spread out over years. The district and superintendent have no direct say in how the money is spent, and unlike other bond expenditures, the discretionary spends are rarely, if ever, debated by the school board: They are simply approved through unanimous consent in an implicit I’m-OK-with-your-projects-if-you’re-OK-with mine arrangement.
There have been four bond measures dating back to 2002 that have been dedicated to raising money to go toward construction and facility upgrades at LA Unified, starting with Measure K. The lion’s share of the funds are spent by carefully-drawn master plans by the superintendent and his staff – such as the Common Core Technology Project – which then come before the School Construction Bond Citizen’s Oversight Committee for non-binding approval, then the school board, for final and binding approval.
But the priority funds take district officials and the superintendent out of the process entirely.
“Included in [Measure K] was a number of specific pots of money for specific types of projects. In recognition that there would be some things that didn’t quite fit into a category but were important, we had what was known as the ‘balancing pot,’ ” said Tom Rubin, a consultant to the bond oversight committee (BOC). “So the question was ‘OK, how do we allocate the money in the balancing pot?’ Frankly, it was difficult to come up with an answer, so what the board members came up with was, ‘Let’s determine each of this ourselves,’ so we wound up with board member priority funds.”
The funds are not divided equally per district but are distributed based on the number of students in the board member’s district. Expenditures from priority funds range drastically, from $4.8 million for a new auditorium at Eagle Rock High School to run-of-the mill items like $1,120 for a precast granite podium at Marina del Rey High School. Other common expenditures are for computer lab and Internet upgrades that pre-date or are outside of the Common Core Technology Project as well as for murals, fences, tables and various construction projects.
Once the expenditure is recommended for approval by the BOC, it goes to the school board to be voted on. (Technically, the BOC is an advisory board only and the school board has the right to ignore its recommendations despite any political or legal risks of doing so.)
Most BOC members are not fans of the existence of priority funds, according Scott Folsom, a BOC board member.
“We are very much opposed to anything that divides the money up by seven. We are for dividing the money up by need,” Folsom said.
According to BOC meeting minutes, the priority funds are frequently discussed at BOC meetings. But once the projects reach the school board, the debate ends. Over the last year, all priority projects, which total over $2 million, have been approved by the board without debate. This happens despite bitter differences among board members on most other issues.
“In general, I think the board members respect the process that has been created,” Galatzan said.
Galatzan said the priority funds are an effective way to directly help a school, but that she has frequently clashed with the BOC about the use of her priority funds.
“The projects that we have funded for my board district are primarily projects that would never get funded otherwise,” she said, adding. “Everything is pretty transparent, and that’s why it’s frustrating when we have a project that is fully bond-fundable and we have all the paperwork has been done and certain people on the bond oversight committee decide the school doesn’t need that or want that, without ever having talked to anyone at the school.”
Folsom said that “Tamar is the one who gets the most upset about [priority funds]. She doesn’t have an understanding of when it’s a board member priority, that’s not the end of the discussion.”
Another oddity of the priority funds is that the board members are given them in a lump sum from each bond, and they can spend it all at once or spread it out over years. This has lead to several outgoing board members’ spending all of their funds before their term ends.
“Politically, there has been a tendency for outgoing school board members to spend every dime they have in their board member discretionary funds,” Folsom said. “I remember when Bennett Kayser came in, there was no money.”
Galatzan also said when she was elected in 2007, all the priority funds for her district had been spent.
Garcia said priority funds, versus general bond funds, are two different systems to help schools, but that priority funds help her essentially cut through red tape and directly help a school fast.
“I would trade in my [priority funds] if the district would give me the needs of all my schools, if that was the exchange, I would do that, but that’s not what’s available,” she said. “This is two different strategies that meet two different needs.”