San Gabriel Valley Tribune
October 28, 2016
By Hayley Munguia
Why taxpayer associations are endorsing a Walnut Valley school bond they opposed last year
Walnut voters may experience deja vu when they glimpse at their ballots this year. The Walnut Valley Unified School District is taking another stab at a bond measure just one year after a similar measure failed to garner the 55 percent approval that was required to pass.
Despite the setback, superintendent Robert Taylor is optimistic that this year will be different, and he’s citing the backing of two taxpayer groups – United Walnut Taxpayers and the California Taxpayers Action Network (CalTAN) – that were opposed to last year’s measure.
So what happened to make these groups change their tune?
Kevin Carlin, attorney for San Diego-based CalTAN, said the process started with an email blast the group sent to 1,052 school district officials throughout the state with the subject line, “Offer of Assistance and Support on Future School Bond Measures.” The email outlined six factors it considers necessary to endorse a bond, including a commitment to sealed competitive bidding for contracts, a specified and prioritized project list, and a guarantee that no more than 20 percent of bond funds would be spent on items that would no longer be useful by the end of the bond term. The email offered to help school districts figure out the best way to meet those requirements.
“We got a lot of responses from districts basically saying … ‘Thank you very much. We don’t need your help,’” Carlin said. “But Walnut Valley was the first one to respond and say, ‘We want to work with you to make this happen.’”
This is the first and only bond measure that CalTAN has endorsed, but Carlin said it’s not because the group is opposed to bonds on principle. “There are good bonds, and there are bad bonds,” he said. “Their bond (last year) was a bad bond. … The vast majority of bond measures just aren’t clear or transparent enough about how that taxpayer money is going to be spent.”
Layla Abou-Taleb, president of United Walnut Taxpayers, said the use of bonds by Mt. SAC last year was a perfect example of how bond measures with broad language about their proposals can go awry. She said the ordeal had “left UWT and the Walnut community very skeptical of school bonds,” but the district’s cooperation with the organization and with CalTAN was a sign that it intended to be open and transparent with the community about where the money would go.
In addition to the requirements laid out by CalTAN, United Walnut Taxpayers asked for a needs and assessment study to be conducted and for the initial proposal of a $300 million bond be reduced to a “reasonable” amount. The district agreed to both and lowered the proposal to $152 million. Abou-Taleb said that after reviewing the district’s project list and resolution, the group’s board “unanimously agreed to endorse and act as a signatory on the bond measure.”
Taylor said the process helped bridge the gap between the school district and the community and that both groups “have valid questions and concerns about any kind of tax measure, and the bond was no exception.” He went on to say that “It’s really gone from what some people may consider to be two extreme opposite views of a certain item, to working together and forming a strong partnership.”
Carlin said the project list and resolutions that the district’s board adopted in conjunction with that list will give some teeth to the concessions the district has made. He cited a lawsuit that a client of his filed against the Fresno Unified School District as an example of how he works to keep school districts accountable for taxpayer money.
“I would hope that Walnut Valley will keep the promises they’ve made in this process,” he said. “But if not, the taxpayers will be able to hold them to account.”