A sign paid for by a local political committee in the National School District urges voters to vote yes on bond measure HH. Nov. 4, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource
A sign paid for by a local political committee in the National School District urges voters to vote yes on bond measure HH. Nov. 4, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

School district administrators and elected trustees who will choose contractors to build projects paid for with new bond money are running political committees advocating for the bonds’ passage on Tuesday.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]Trustees and administrators are placing themselves in potential conflict by running political committees in their districts.[/box][/one_half]

The committees raise money from individuals, businesses and labor groups to support the bond ballot measures. Committees in the Southwestern Community College, National, Cajon Valley Union and Cardiff school districts are directly run by either district superintendents or trustees.

That set up is not illegal or against any regulations from the Fair Political Practices Commission. However, it has raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

Matt Strabone, a San Diego lawyer specializing in political campaigns, said district staff members aren’t allowed to do bond committee work during their regular work days.

“I cannot think of other laws or regulations that limit the activity of elected school board members or school board district staff on behalf of ballot measure committees,” he said. “At least nothing further than the laws that apply to any other citizen.”

Nonetheless, Marc Joffe, of the California Policy Center, a think tank that studies campaigns and public finance, is concerned that advocacy could creep into school administrators’ work.

“I do think there’s still a violation of the spirit of the law in the sense that we really look to our appointed administrators … to really avoid taking political positions that are related to what they do,” he said.

Often, those administrators have a “monopoly over the information” relevant to the bond measures because most voters have no idea about the true conditions of schools and how much repairs would cost.

“They just shouldn’t be using their title and their role to try to influence voters one way or the other,” Joffe said.

When it comes to school board members, involvement with a committee could exacerbate fears about special interests buying favor by supporting school bond measures, he said.

“If you’re on a school board and you sort of know that XYZ company contributed $25,000 to put a particular bond measure over the top, you might feel some obligation to award some of the contracts to that company,” Joffe said.

If a board member running a committee is asking for donations that could put the board member in a position “where he or she would be sort of expected to return the favor,” Joffe said.

Trustees in charge

Two San Diego County committees supporting bond measures are run by school district trustees.

South Bay Families for Affordable College – Yes on Z advocates for the passage of a $400 million bond at Southwestern Community College. The measure would be used, at least in part, for basic classroom repairs and to expand services and job training for veterans. In official filings, the committee lists Southwestern trustees Nora Vargas and Humberto Peraza as principal officers.

Peraza, who is leaving the board this year, told the Southwestern Sun that he understood concerns about mismanagement, especially after a 2008 bond measure was enveloped in a massive pay-to-play scandal. At one point in 2012, 15 defendants at several South Bay school districts faced 232 criminal charges. Some contracts at Southwestern College were suspended and San Diegans for Open Government sued other contractors trying to get back some of the money spent.

“The last bond brought a lot of corruption,” Peraza told the Sun.

But, the newspaper wrote, “Peraza said the days of pay-for-play are long dead and buried.”

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The committee has raised $165,000 so far this year, including $100,000 from the San Diego County Building Trades Council Family Housing Corp. It also received $10,000 from contractors such as Barnhart-Reese Construction and Balfour Beatty Construction.

Peraza and Vargas, whose term runs through 2018, did not respond to requests for comment.

In North County, the Yes on Measure GG Committee Rebuild 4 Cardiff Kids supports a $22 million bond for the Cardiff School District. The money would be used, at least in part, to rebuild Cardiff Elementary School.

In official filings, the committee listed Trustee Siena Randall as a principal officer. The committee has raised $11,700. That includes $5,000 each from Eric Davy Architects and Jones Hall A Professional Corp., a bond counsel law firm. Randall, listed as “self-employed,” also donated $100 to the committee.

Staff double duty

Two other committees supporting local bond measures are run by school district administrators.

Committee for Measure HH advocates for a $30 million bond at National School District. The money would, in part, pay for classroom repairs and to replace portable classrooms with permanent ones.

Christopher Carson, National’s assistant superintendent of business services, is listed as the committee’s treasurer. His duties include filing official forms and paperwork for the committee. He told inewsource he does all committee work during personal time, taking vacation time whenever he needs to file documents.

He also took vacation time for an informational presentation to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association about the bond.

“I did that just because I didn’t want it to blur the lines of advocating for the bond so I took it as vacation,” Carson said.

The committee has raised $7,576, almost all of it rolled over from a previous bond measure committee. Some of that money was used to buy yard signs. Carson said he could understand concerns about conflict of interest.

“It could be a conflict if done incorrectly and improperly,” he said. In this case the committee hasn’t done any fundraising.

“Within National School District’s case, I don’t see it being a conflict,” Carson said.

The principal officer of the committee is listed as Anne Campbell. She’s listed as the president of the district’s Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee, a group that is supposed to make sure bond money is spent appropriately and according to the district’s original plan. Campbell did not respond to a request for comment.

In the East County, the Yes on Measure EE for Cajon Valley’s Schools committee advocates for a $20 million bond measure for the Cajon Valley Union School District. The money would be used specifically for new technology at the district’s schools.

David Miyashiro, the district’s superintendent, is listed as a principal officer for the committee. Scott Buxbaum, the assistant superintendent of business services, is the committee’s assistant treasurer.

Miyashiro said the committee is a rollover from a previous bond measure.

“We didn’t campaign, we didn’t fundraise, we didn’t do any committee work,” he said. “I think my name is there for lack of a better name, as the district representative.”

The district asked local stakeholders like chambers of commerce and the Lincoln Club, a pro-business advocacy group, to build support while the bond was being crafted. The goal was a financially conservative bond that maintained the district’s high-tech reputation.

“We’re one of 73 districts in the United States that has been deemed successful in taking digital learning to scale,” Miyashiro said.

The committee has received $3,030, including $1,000 each from the Cajon Valley Education Association PAC and from the bond counsel firm Jones Hall A Professional Corp. An additional $405 was left over from a previous bond committee.

Miyashiro said those contributions were unsolicited. Still, the committee used the money. The superintendent said two “district mailers” were sent out, one to parents and one to general voters. He told inewsource during an interview on Tuesday that he was unsure whether the district or the committee sent the mailers.

In a follow-up email, Miyashiro said one mailer was sent by the district, which he said was allowed because it was  informational. He believed there was a second mailer paid for by donations, but he was “not 100 percent sure.”

A San Diego Rostra story earlier this week posted photos of Cajon Valley Union mailers different from the one provided by Miyashiro.

Scott Buxbaum, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services and the committee’s assistant treasurer, said in an email the committee used “a small amount of carryover from the last campaign and about $1,600 in donations to purchase about 30 campaign signs for fences around town.”

Miyashiro said he’s not worried about conflicts of interest with the overlap in committee and district staff. He pointed to the district’s Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee as a group that will ensure money is spent correctly and to district plans to spend the bond “in a very transparent way.”

As far as splitting time, he said what has to be done outside of work hours depends on the nature of the work.

“As long as the work we’re doing is information and district business,” it can be done during business hours, he said. “But anything that has to do with campaigning or advocacy absolutely has to be done outside of the work day.”

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.