Morgan Hill Unified School District trustees are exploring several program management options that could cost up to $4 million to oversee Measure G, the $198 million capital improvements bond voters approved in November 2012.
Two of the three possibilities include a paid, three-year position which will be charged with managing Measure G-related projects in order to make best use of the bond; something MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith said the district was up front about from the get-go when it was trying to get the measure passed. Board of Education President Don Moody also reiterates that trustees are “sensitive” to the cost and are “trying to be careful with our decisions.”
“Everyone on the Board does take their responsibilities very seriously and doesn’t want to spend taxpayer’s money without careful consideration,” he emphasized.
So, rather than diving in headfirst and approving the district’s recommendation of hiring a consulting firm at the cost of $1.5 million for the upcoming Measure G-funded projects, trustees tabled the vote at their April 30 meeting and requested a discussion of “some other options” from the district that would cost either $540,000 or an estimated $4 million.
But some community members such as Morgan Hill resident Roy Bannister question additional spending on “administration fees.”
“I don’t know how much you’re proposing to spend on what I would consider administration fees (and) program management,” said Bannister, who claimed voters were never informed that the district would have to use perhaps millions of the bond money to hire someone to manage it.
On the voting ballot under Measure G, the language stipulated that the funds could only be used “to improve student access to computers and modern technology... repair or replace leaky roofs, upgrade old plumbing, heating/cooling systems, classrooms and outdated restrooms, upgrade fire safety, maximize energy efficiency, improve handicapped accessibility, and modernize, construct and acquire classrooms, equipment, sites and facilities.”
Smith, who announced the district’s plans for a May 29 community meeting to get public input on school site capital improvements priorities, rebutted Bannister’s claim.
“This isn’t an administrative fee,” he countered. “This is part of the construction costs and this is not a new concept.”
Trustees are currently studying three different Measure G program management options at varying costs. MHUSD is required to spend $55 million of the $198 million Measure G pot over the next three years, as stipulated in the bond parameters according to Director of Facilities Anessa Espinosa.
The options include:
• Contracting a program management firm at the cost of a little more than $1.5 million. (An option the district recommended because a firm “can easily respond to changes in workload by scaling up or down quickly, depending on the number of projects running simultaneously.”)
• Creating a new staff position – a Director of Construction and Modernization – to perform program management services in-house (as was done with previous bonds that funded the construction of Ann Sobrato High School and renovations at Live Oak High School). This would cost $180,000 annually, or $540,000 for three years.
• Adopting a blended model of first two options. Moody estimates that hiring a program management firm plus a Director of Construction and Modernization would cost $4 million to oversee the first series of projects.
Trustees discussed all of these possible pathways at length during their meeting.
The Board briefly discussed, but dismissed the possibility of having Espinosa – acting as facilities director – take on all bond oversight project duties. They almost voted on Option 1, to hire Cumming Corporation (an international project and cost consulting firm with an office in San Jose) as facilities consultant, along with Santa Clara-based Blach Construction Company as the construction manager.
However, trustees decided to chew things over a little more when they learned of the $1.5 million price tag.
“We were told (by the district) that they negotiated the (consultant option cost) down and that it was a good deal,” Moody said. “But seeing $1.5 million, I think that for me was enough to want to learn more and explore other options.”
Trustees have already toured every school facility within MHUSD to determine the needs for each according to Moody, who said some of what they saw “was embarrassing” such as leaky roofs and out-of-date HVAC units.
The district recommended the $1.5 million option of hiring a consulting firm with the ability to “leverage in-house staff and external consultants to provide a broader knowledge-base to meet the district’s specialized project needs” and Smith was under the impression that the Board was in agreement with that.
Moody, however, who admitted seeing the $1.5 million cost on paper is what alarmed him about that option, reiterated his priority that “every school will see some improvements” thanks to Measure G.
The Board’s indecision irked Smith since he thought everyone was on the same page with hiring the consultancy firm to maintain what the superintendent called “continuity, scope and consistency throughout the bond process.”
“When you’re hiring someone to work for the district, you’re hiring one person,” he explained of Option 2. “When you hire a consultant, you get a team of experts, not just one person.”
Board Vice President Shelle Thomas, the longest standing member since 2002, is in favor of spending roughly $1.5 million to hire a program management firm. In her opinion, the district’s past experience of solely hiring an in-house employee to oversee multiple bond-funded projects – such as the installation of new fencing at Live Oak and PA Walsh Elementary – was not a good one because the individual was “very limited in scope” and “didn’t allow for the overall vision” to be consistent throughout all projects.
Contracting a program management firm, alternately, “is more expensive, but, at the same time, in the long run, it comes down to: Do we want to do it right or do we want to do it piecemeal?” said Thomas, adding that “projects of this magnitude” need an “objective third-party” so a “common vision” is maintained.
Other potential projects slated for this summer that have not been officially approved by the Board include the construction of a multipurpose room at the Charter School of Morgan Hill, fencing at Britton Middle School and various roofing projects at other facilities.
Trustees Ron Woolf and Claudia Rossi pointed out that the Board and district staff have already put in extended hours to ensure Measure G funds are being utilized in the most efficient manner.
“We spent many, many hours on (gaining community input and planning for the allocation of Measure G funds),” Woolf said. “This isn’t something we came up with a haphazard list. We also knew these figures (costs associated with managing the bond) were going to be included.”
The district also established a Citizens’ Oversight Committee – which had its first meeting April 17 – “to inform the public concerning the expenditure of the Measure G Bond proceeds.”
There are two Board of Ed. meetings that will take place May 14 and May 28 prior to the May 29 community input meetings, which will run from 6 to 7 p.m. at several sites yet to be determined. Moody said at the May 14 meeting the Board will revisit the management options with “more information for further discussion and possible action.”
Decisions by the Board of Education related to the use of Measure G funds came under fire recently when trustees in March voted 6-1 to allocate nearly $7 million for the phase I modernization plan of the old Burnett Elementary School. Located on Tilton Avenue in northwest Morgan Hill, Burnett was closed down in a cost-saving move, $400,000 in annual savings since 2009.
Smith assures that every school in MHUSD will benefit from Measure G funds, although the initial disbursement of those dollars was criticized by parents who are upset by the Board’s approval to move Central Continuation High School to the former Burnett site. Many parents in the Capriano neighborhood surrounding the old elementary campus want to see it stay exactly what it was: an elementary school.
Those same residents now question the use of Measure G dollars for management of the Measure G projects.
“You have to explain to the community how you’re spending Measure G funds,” insisted Bannister, who has spoke at every school board meeting since learning about the Central-to-Burnett decision. “Listen to the public and get out there and see what they have to say.”
Scott Forstner is a general assignment reporter who covers education and other community issues for the Morgan Hill Times. Reach him at (408) 847-7158 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org