Trustees became students at Tuesday night's meeting of the Pleasanton Unified School District board, with back-to-back workshops on ethics and finances.
"We believe in ongoing professional learning as a school district, and this is modeled by our Trustees, who are always willing and interested in learning together as a team," said Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi.
Representatives of the Kingsley Bogard Law Firm led the five elected members of the school board through a detailed review of laws governing ethics and conflicts of interest. Attorney Mary Bogard cited a 1985 court case, in which it was established that conflict of interest laws are to halt not only impropriety, but also "the appearance of impropriety."
Attorney Paul Gant reviewed specifics of the Political Reform Act, noting that the underlying principle is to ensure that "public officials are here to serve the public interest."
Each year, school board members, district administrators, school principals, and other designated staff members are required to file a form listing their income and assets, including gifts.
As noted in the Board Handbook, gifts could include "money, food, transportation, accommodations, tickets, flowers, and articles for household, office, or recreational use.
Gant said trustees are prohibited from accepting honoraria for giving a speech or writing an article.
There are exceptions, including that of returning the unused gift within 30 days; donating it to a non-profit (501©3) organization, or paying fair market value for the item. The intent is to prevent decision-makers from being swayed by personal financial gain, either for themselves or for their family members or businesses.
The handbook outlines the "Three D's" for a public official who may be in a conflict of interest prior to a decision: Disclose by publicly announcing the specific financial interest that is the source of the disqualification: Do not participate in the discussion or vote upon the issue, and, depart, not only from the dais, but also the room during the discussion and vote.
The school board also discussed and reviewed Government Code Section 1090, which forbids them from having any financial interest in contracts they make for the school district.
The focus of the next workshop will be on the long-term debt of the district and how it is being managed.
Luz Cazares, deputy superintendent of business services, described the four kinds of long-term debt the school district currently has: General Obligation Bonds; Certificates of Participation; capital leases; and other post-employment benefits.
As of the June 30, 2013 audit, the school district owed $65 million for General Obligation Bonds approved by voters in Measures A and B for school facility renovations and expansions. This year's payment was $13 million.
Cazares explained that the county determines the tax rate based on assessed valuation and the debt payments due. Currently the district's tax rate is $92 per $100,000 assessed valuation, placing it in the middle of the K-12 districts in the county.
The highest rate for Pleasanton in the past 26 years was $121 in 1996-97; lowest rate was $57 in 1989-90.
The tax rate for the district is expected to drop to $69 next fiscal year, then to zero in 10 years, when the General Obligation Bonds are paid off, providing that the projection of 2-4% growth per year in assessed valuation holds true. According to Cazares, the district's assessed valuation increased by 4% this year.
Certificates of Participation were issued to finance additional high school classrooms, build a child care facility, acquire land for Thomas Hart Middle School and pay for the infrastructure for the Neal site. The district currently owes $17.5million in this category. Developer fees were used to pay for Certificates of Participation, with a special reserve set up for economic times when developer fees might not be available.
The smallest amount of long-term debt is in the capital lease category. The district owes $215,750 for lighting retrofits and heating/ventilation/air-conditioning at school sites.
This year's payment was $143,908. The final payment will be made in the 2015-16 fiscal year, and then the money formerly budgeted for this purpose will be added to the fund for technology.
Deputy Superintendent Cazares noted that because the district has been able to reduce the amount it pays for annual debt service, the savings have been set aside in a separate fund for technology.
This prompted a discussion of the rising importance, and cost, of up-to-date technology for students. Trustee Chris Grant suggested that the board begin planning a long-term financial strategy not only for school facilities, but also for technology.
The final type of long-term debt is "other post-employment benefits," meaning other than pensions.
The present value of future benefits is $41 million, with $17 million accrued actuarial liability. Government Accounting Standard Board Statement #45 now requires school districts to demonstrate how they will pay the accrued actuarial liability.
Pleasanton has set aside $2.4 million in a special reserve fund. The deputy superintendent said that she may bring a proposal to the board next fall to establish a trust fund to fulfill the obligations for other post-retirement benefits. That looks more feasible now that the economy is improving, she said, since trust funds cannot be tapped for other purposes. No action would be likely before 2015.
The school board has asked staff members to draft a request for proposal to accomplish two tasks: Identify, evaluate, and acquire land for an additional elementary school, and explore the possibility of a sale or exchange of real property.
Board president Jamie Hintzke asked that the latter include researching whether it would be worth it to move the district's central services to a different location, develop and lease a portion of the current district office site, and build new schools for Village Continuation High School and Horizon School for teen parents.
"We need to put everything on the table, think outside the box," Hintzke said. Scheduled for the next school board agenda is the update to the facilities master plan and a look at how it might be financed.
During the brief public comment section that preceded the workshops, four employees and one parent addressed the board.
Donna Willy, registrar for Foothill High School, said that because Foothill's enrollment is lower than Amador Valley High School's, it has fewer sections allocated and therefore larger class sizes. She asked the board to add up to 15 additional sections for next school year.
Also, two staff members repeated concerns they expressed at the March 11 board meeting.
Both Mary Snell, health clerk at Walnut Grove Elementary, and Linda Pipe, registrar at Amador Valley, claimed that their reputations have been damaged because they were inaccurately portrayed in an investigative report about Walnut Grove. Both acknowledged that the superintendent had responded to them in writing by March 13, but they were not satisfied by her invitation to review their personnel folders and add any comments they wished to write out. Both sought apologies.
Paige Wright-Henry, a Walnut Grove parent, asked the school board to consider a second investigation into allegations at her children's school, claiming that the last one was based on "unsubstantiated hearsay."
She said that both parents and staff members "fear retaliation," and that office staff members and parent club volunteers had not been interviewed as part of the investigative process.
Alex Sutton, president of the California School Employees Association, invited school board members to "sit down at the table to hear issues," to make sure they were fully informed of what was happening in the school district.
The next school board meeting will be held April 22 at the district office, 4665 Bernal Avenue.