TOM BUTT E-FORUM: In Support of Bruce Harter

Bolstered by a Grand Jury Report that criticized the bond-funded school construction program, the Contra Costa Times is calling for the ouster of Superintendent Bruce Harter. 


The campaign is based largely on the findings of the Grand Jury Report, 
West Contra Costa Unified School District: Bond Program & Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee <> .

Unfortunately, the Grand Jury report is an amateur effort, largely built around statistics (cost per square foot, taxes paid per capita) with comparisons to state averages rather than actually evaluating the qualitative characteristics of individual projects or the results in academic achievement and the needs of students and staff.


There was no effort by the Grand Jury or other critics to evaluate cost versus value or compare square foot costs on an “apples to apples” basis. 


One reason construction costs are above state averages is because the WCCUSD built many new schools rather than “paint up, fix up” modernization of existing schools. Some campuses doubled in square footage and now have properly sized campuses to educate our kids. Following the school-community partnership model, health clinics and neighborhood centers were integrated into many schools. These are not a frivolous luxury; they are consistent with proven best practices.


Many Districts in the State of California have used portable classrooms in new and modernized schools to save money, which results in low average costs per square foot. In the case of WCCUSD, the school board established a policy of eliminating wherever possible portables from campuses. This, was a schoolboard policy, not an act by Dr. Harter and has been a long standing practice since 2001, spanning the tenure of many different school board members. 


The state recommends and calculates costs based on assumptions that new projects will replace similar structures. WCCUSD did not replace portables with portables but instead replaced portables with permanent construction, thus an increase in costs.  


An example is a project my firm, Interactive Resources, worked on --Stewart School, where we designed a permanent structure for the middle school students and included air conditioning, two upgrade standards that explain the change in costs for a site. Washington Elementary is another example where portables were replaced with permanent construction.


The two schools replaced in Hercules, Ohlone Elementary and Lupine Hills Elementary, had previously been all portable campuses, so the board rejected the state guidelines and decided to use local standards for higher quality and longer usages.  The school board felt that building schools for the next fifty to seventy five years was a wiser use of tax payer money than having to return to ask for more money 20 years from now.


Unlike many districts, WCCUSD straddles a major fault, the Hayward fault, and seismic safety has been the highest priority, resulting in higher than average structural and geotechnical costs. WCCUSD schools were not constructed on virgin land that had no previous use.  All of the replacements in Richmond had prior buildings and a need to remediate the soils.  For example, Coronado had a City Hall from the 1920's on its site and an armory during World War II.  Gompers/Leadership site was eligible for state seismic money due to the conditions of the soils that required extensive work done to the ground to stabilize the school that now occupies the site.  Footings and piers 18- feet deep were drilled  into the soil at bedrock to stabilize against any future earthquake.


Critics also fail to mention is improved security by installing surveillance systems that our middle school and high school sites, which has reduced truancy and improved campus safety. Other school districts have not invested dollars in this way and thus our numbers look inflated. 


These costs are justified and have no bearing on how Dr. Harter has done as a Superintendent. 


Critics of the bond program also fail to mention the $175 Million in state matching funds that the program has leveraged. Let me put this in perspective. If the WCCUSD builds $350 million of school improvements, half of it is paid for by the State of California. The effective per square foot cost to the District is half the actual cost.


West Contra Costa County, and particularly Richmond, is a constant attraction for critics who like to point out that the area wants high quality amenities, but since the area is poor, we should be happy with substandard facilities. The 
Contra Costa Times is obsessed with WCCUSD and apparently cannot be troubled to interrogate other superintendents in our county about their bond programs or provide direct evidence that other school districts in Contra Costa or Alameda are outperforming what has taken place here over the past 15 years. 

Recently the editorial board of the West County Times asked – again – that Superintendent Bruce Harter be fired.  They based this on their obsession with the philosophy of the school construction program – one that has succeeded in building facilities across the district that meet the needs of students and staff.


If they would get past their obsession with the bond program, which is largely a product of school board policy, and look at academics they would find examples such as DeAnza. When Dr. Harter arrived, DeAnza High School was one of the lowest performing schools in the state.  Earlier this month it was awarded the State Gold Ribbon for Excellence – a turnaround Dr. Harter can be proud of – and something our whole community can celebrate. 


·    Test scores are up across the board; suspensions and campus violence are down, and truancy is down. Dr. Harter has led the district through the worst possible financial times – having to make extraordinary cuts to programs – and had the courage to end lifetime health benefits for district employees.  In addition, he led the district out of state oversight six years early.  Dr. Harter has proven to be the leader the District needs. 

I would encourage everyone to speak with those board members (Randy Enos, Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas) who have not supported Dr. Harter to explain why.


Over the years, criticism of the school construction program has emanated from a very small group of community residents – most of whom have no children in the district.  They like to label themselves as “Concerned Taxpayers” – but we are all taxpayers – taxpayers who have received value from the school construction program.  No other California community has rehabilitated over 90% of its schools and provided up-to-date technology for everyone -- in a fifteen year period – with Bruce Harter at the helm for the last nine years.


The District has never “mismanaged” tax funds nor exceeded voter-approved tax rates (like many other districts in Alameda and Contra Costa counties).  The district is exceptional for its stellar tax management – not for mismanagement.  Bruce Harter deserves all the credit.  What the media never say is that all five city councils and the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee twice (2011 and 2013) supported the district’s effort to raise its debt limit from 2.5% to 5% for ten years.  This strategy allowed the district to move ahead and build many more schools. 


The much ballyhooed “investigations” by the SEC and others have apparently petered out without any derogatory conclusions, but the media has already convicted Harter, Ramsey and others. 

Reposted from the TOM BUTT E-FORUM, published July 1, 2015.

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