AUSD Lacks Fiscal Responsibility

On June 5, the Alameda Sun published former Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) Superintendent Kirsten Vital’s commentary, "District Is Fiscally Responsible." In the piece Vital provided an e-mail address and urged readers to contact her. I did so and heard nothing so after several weeks .I sent a copy of the letter to the Alameda Sun, which it published on July 10 as "Why I’m Voting ‘No’ on School Bond Measure." On July 24, The Sun printed Vital’s response, "Clearing things up."

I am now writing in response to her July 24 letter. First, I wish to thank Vital for taking the time to respond. I know she has recently begun a new job, and I’m sure she is very busy and has many other important things to do.

In her defense, Vital said that she did not receive my email, which I find odd, as my email did not bounce back and went to the address she posted in her letter as the way to reach her, kvital@alameda.k12.ca.us. I am fairly certain that if my letter had not been published in the Sun, Vital would not have responded to me at all. Now that I have her public response, I wish to respond in kind.

My letter raised several questions. One was why the school district, the housing authority and the city negotiated the "land swap" behind closed doors.

Vital responded by saying that closed doors were necessary because, "There was a potential for litigation." This is truly a troublesome response, because if that is the case, the Brown Act’s requirement of open government is worthless and meaningless. Everything public agencies do has the "potential for litigation." Her excuse/reason/explanation could be used to keep anything and everything from public scrutiny and is not an acceptable response.

Secondly she said that they held closed-door meetings "because the agencies were discussing prices and terms." Note, however, these are all public agencies discussing public land use. They are doing so in secret. Note also, this is not a negotiated sale or contract with a private company where contract language and terms may be best attained in privacy.

This brings me to the third part of Vital’s response. She wrote that "all three public agencies did discuss the agreement at their public meetings, so that community members could comment on it."

She doesn’t say, however, when these meetings took place. As far as I know, all the meetings took place after the Alameda Sun publicized the agreement between the agencies. The meetings Vital referred to were the formal meetings required by the Brown Act to make the secret agreements legal.

If there were any public meetings held before that time, I ask that Vital or any public officials involved in these meeting provide copies of their official agendas. These agendas must clearly identify the "land swap" as a public item in a way that any reasonable citizen who read it would know that was the topic being discussed.

I also asked Vital why the school district, which, according to the Sun, owned the 17.05 acres of land to be swapped, did not seek or get an appraisal for that land, especially since Tim Lewis Communities purchased an adjacent piece of property for $500,000 an acre.

At that rate, the public property would be worth over $8 million. Instead, without an appraisal, according to the Sun, the school board agreed to sell the property to the city for $750,000, about $44,000 an acre, or $456,000 less per acre than Tim Lewis Communities paid for the neighboring land.

In response Vital stated that "Tideland parcels were not appraised because as public trust lands, they cannot be sold. As such, a conventional commercial or residential appraisal would not be useful."

This may or may not be accurate. I don’t know. What I do know is if I am making a deal or trying to make a deal and trying to get the best and the most for my constituency — in Vital’s case, the school district — it is helpful to know the value of what I have. The greater the value, the better the deal I’ll get. We all know that about negotiating for anything.

Yet here, Vital and the school board had no interest in determining the value of what they had or in playing that value for something greater than what they got. To me, this is not being

fiscally responsible. Nor is it negotiating in good faith in the school district’s best interests.

In fact, to me, it is giving those interests away, which is troubling. It’s even more troubling that the same people who negotiated their interests away are now asking for more money.

I also asked about the rental income the school district may or may not have received from boat owners and others who used this public school district property for private purposes for years.

Basically, I was asking if the school district did its due diligence with the property it had under its control, and if it collected all the money it could have possibly collected, especially during the lean times.

Vital did not respond to this question. I would still like to know the answer.

I would still like to support the school bond, but I won’t without answers to these questions. I am not part of the already active opposition to the bond. I believe schools need money, and I am not an anti-tax person.

I do, however, believe in fiscal responsibility and open government and due diligence. Based on what I know about how the school district has handled its finances and decision-making in this "land swap" deal, I cannot justify putting more money into the hands of the same people. I am still hoping, though, to be persuaded otherwise.

Mark Greenside is a retired professor of political science, history, and English from Merritt College in Oakland