[Napa County] Several Napa school trustees blame taxpayer group for grand jury criticism

As a group, the Napa Valley Unified School District’s Board of Trustees responded unemotionally to financial criticism by the Napa County Grand Jury.

But individually, several trustees said they saw the fingerprints of Napa County Taxpayers Association representatives behind the reports that were issued this spring.

Trustee Thomas Kensok said the grand jury reports contained “inaccuracies” that “did appear to be coming from an agenda.” He also said the inaccuracies could do “damage because somebody may attempt to use some of those findings against the district the next time we need to go out for a [school] bond.”

“This oversight of the bond does look to be the work of someone trying to sabotage future efforts because of their own agenda,” said Kensok, “and I find that more than bothersome. I find it more than unfortunate that somebody would use a forum like this to try and sabotage the good things the district is doing.”

Kensok did not specify to whom he was referring.

Another trustee, Jose Hurtado, was equally vague at first, stating during the school board’s June 28 meeting: “My concern is that some of the findings remind me of statements made by members of the last and current oversight committees consistent with the views of an organization in town.”

“I’m just concerned about some of these findings,” Hurtado said. “They were clearly guided” by “folks in an organization” — the same organization that has fought bond efforts by Napa Valley College, where Hurtado once taught, he added.

Following the meeting, Hurtado said in an interview that the organization he was talking about was the Napa County Taxpayers Association, whose representatives have served on NVUSD bond oversight committees.

“They’ve been consistent in their opposition to anything that has to do with education,” said Hurtado.

He continued in his criticism of the taxpayers group, saying: “I’m just in utter shock that they continue this war against our children.”

“We talk about children, they talk about buildings,” he said. “I have a difficult time with any person or agency whose initial response to anything is ‘no’ without any visible evidence of critical thinking.”

When the grand jury in late May released its report, “The Measure H Watchdog Isn’t Barking,” Leon Brauning with the Napa County Taxpayers Association told the Napa Valley Register that he had complained to the grand jury about NVUSD’s cost overruns impacting Measure H spending.

Brauning, who serves on the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee for Measure H and has served on previous bond oversight committees, also criticized the district’s leadership following the release of a second grand jury report, “Financial Challenges Persist at Napa Valley Unified School District.”

“Considering that there are two negative grand jury reports for NVUSD in less than 2 weeks,” said Brauning on June 13, “it is apparent that there are serious problems with mismanagement at the top levels of the school district.”

When asked about Hurtado’s comments, Brauning deferred to another member of the Napa County Taxpayers Association, director Jack Gray.

“Obviously this rant does not demonstrate Mr. Hurtado’s critical thinking skills,” Gray wrote in response via an email.

He added that when Measure H was being crafted, members of his organization met with NVUSD management “and clearly stated that we would oppose a large uncontrolled bond measure and would not oppose a bond measure for repairing schools damaged in the recent earthquake.”

The Napa County Taxpayers Association opposed Measure H on the June 2016 ballot. The measure barely cleared the 55 percent voter threshold required to pass.

Gray also wrote: “Our concerns are not and have never been a ‘war against children.’ Rather they reflect real concerns because previously approved school bond funds have not been controlled and expended in a frugal and transparent manner. These concerns have been demonstrated to be valid as cited in the current Grand Jury report.”

The May 29 report from the grand jury concluded the school district and the oversight committee were not being sufficiently transparent when it comes to the spending of Measure H monies or cost overruns associated with a long list of school projects known as the Facilities Master Plan.

A week later, the grand jury issued a second report on NVUSD’s persistent “financial challenges” that focused on its string of budget deficits.

District officials produced two official responses, one for each of the grand jury reports. “Principally written” by Assistant Superintendent Wade Roach, according to Superintendent Patrick Sweeney, the responses were approved by the school board on June 28.

Links to the complete responses can be found online in the school board’s June 28 agenda under “New Business” items.

The responses stated NVUSD “agreed” with some findings by the grand jury, but “disagreed” with others.

In responding to the report on Measure H oversight, the school board and the bond oversight committee “take issue to a degree with the tone and assumptions made in parts of this report.”

For instance, the district agreed with the finding that its Facilities Master Plan and budget, created in 2014, were outdated and underfunded, and do not reflect 2018 (or later) construction costs.

But they disagreed “partially” with the grand jury’s finding that construction costs for many projects were running 30-500 percent higher than originally estimated by NVUSD.

The “percentages presented by the GJ report in no way reflect our actual experiences,” the response stated, and cited a recent annual report by the bond oversight committee that found costs had gone up 82 percent above the original estimate “on one component of one project.”

The responses also contained rebuttals to the recommendations made by the grand jury in the two reports. The district said it would implement some recommendations, but not all of them.

In the second grand jury report that discussed NVUSD’s budget deficits, it was recommended that the district “develop a detailed, five-year financial plan.”

District officials rejected this recommendation, saying in its written response: “As required by the State, the District creates and updates, at least twice a year, multi-year budget projections that reflect a three- year budget cycle.”

It went on to say, “Projections of revenue and expenses beyond three years are fraught with the uncertainty of enrollment and funding levels.”

“Looking at instructional needs beyond a three-year horizon is of questionable benefit. It is our intention to continue reporting on the three-year cycle, as required,” the district concluded.

July 4, 2018

Napa Valley Register

By Noel Brinkerhoff

 

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