EditorialIf you haven't read through the 36-page response by the Pleasant school district to Judge George C. Hernandez's tentative ruling in favor of Signature Properties over building Neal Elementary School, you should. It's available online and makes for a good water cooler or after-work debate over where the school district should go next and how much more money should it spend to get there. Hernandez wasn't subtle in ruling that the school district never had an agreement for Signature to build the school, which back in 2002 had an estimated price tag of $8.5 million. When John Casey was hired that year to succeed Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, he found that the cost of building Neal had risen to $13.5 million, $5 million more than budgeted and the district could afford. He was also told that the ironclad construction agreement with Signature called the for developer to pay for anything over $8.5 million. As time wore on, the relationship between the school district and Pleasanton's premier homebuilder soured, with Signature finally taking legal action to clarify just what its obligations were. Last month, Hernandez ruled on the last of two Alameda County Superior Court complaints, agreeing with Judge Ronald Sabraw's earlier ruling that even the preliminary agreement to have Signature build Neal violated the state's competitive bidding law and therefore was null and void. Even so, Hernandez then looked at the numerous other claims and counter-claims filed over the course of the four-year litigation and ruled against the school district on every single count.
Let's end this battle
In its objections to that ruling, the district appears to be setting the stage for an appeal if Hernandez's final ruling, expected at any time, discounts its objections and sticks with the tentative decision. The board has called a special meeting for 9 a.m. Monday to discuss its strategy, again behind closed doors at it's entitled to do. With several million dollars in taxpayer money at stake, the district must weigh the cost of an appeal, which could total up to a quarter-million dollars versus accepting the Superior Court ruling and ending the litigation. There's plenty of time to think this through. After the final ruling, Hernandez then will assess damages, and it's then that the district will have at least 30 days to decide on an appeal.
What's worse for taxpayers is that the Pleasanton school district's risk sharing funding pool with other districts in the state covers specific liability and catastrophic claims, not legal disputes over construction agreements. The most Pleasanton may recover appears to be $100,000, with any other payments to come from the district's capital improvement budget. If there was a ray of hope that the state Court of Appeal might overturn Hernandez, the $250,000 might be worth it. But even if the district wins on appeal, it's likely the Appellate Court would send the case back to the trial court for another round, which, of course, would add more costs.
Sometimes, though, it's when bitter disputes are finally resolved in a court of law that both parties find they can talk again. After all, Signature has been an important contributor to Pleasanton, and the school district is really financed by the same people Signature serves. Surely there's a way the two sides can bury the hatchet and resolve their differences in the best interests of our community. It's worth a try. To read the tentative ruling, go to apps.alameda.courts.ca.gov and click on Case Summary, entering case number RG03113375.