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School district trustees respond to grand jury report

By: Liz Kellar The News Messenger
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Trustees of the Western Placer Unified School District released the district’s final response to a critical Placer County grand jury report Friday. Board president Paul Carras and district superintendent Scott Leaman had been asked by the jury to respond to 11 recommendations made in the June report, which charged that the district made many errors and misjudgements in facilities construction and financing during the past decade. The district’s response noted that the Grand Jury report “has been an important reality check.” However, the response continued, “district leaders would challenge the pronouncement that our community is ‘disillusioned’ with their public schools … Disappointed might be a better word.” District officials pointed the finger at their over-reliance on “a few vendors and contractors that, in retrospect, had an appearance of a conflict of interest.” The school district is currently party to a lawsuit against NTD, the architect that built its new schools, including Twelve Bridges Elementary and Twelve Bridges Middle. A case management conference on the suit, which was filed in Riverside County, has been scheduled for Friday. “We appear to have been victims of our optimism and desire to satisfy the perceived demands of our residents for quality schools,” the response stated. “This has been a hard lesson, but one we have taken to heart as a school district.” The Grand Jury report issued 15 recommendations; the school district was required to respond to 11 of those. The district response agreed fully with eight of the recommendations. These included: The school board members must clearly understand their role and responsibilities; The district should guarantee all building projects are tied to defined and specific funding sources; The district must encourage developers and the city to jointly shoulder the financial burden; The district must ensure it is receiving fair value in all transactions; The district should not allow partnerships between its architect and primary contractor; There are still relationship and communication issues within the district; The district must continue to communicate aggressively with the public; District staff should actively communicate with local realtors and developers to ensure they have the latest school facilities information. The district agreed in part with three of the conclusions in the Grand Jury report. The Grand Jury recommended the district create a department dedicated to new construction that was separate from facilities maintenance. The district, however, responded that this might not be the most cost-effective approach. “The district will take this recommendation under advisement and work to ensure that there is adequate and appropriate staffing to oversee our new construction efforts,” the response stated. “Right now a separate department is not necessary,” board president Paul Carras said. “Down the road, when we reach build-out, then it’s a different issue altogether. When the boom hits again, we can take a look. We would look to bring on more temporary folks, rather than permanent staff that we would have to downsize.” The Grand Jury also recommended that the district expand its Lincoln High School farm as an educational tool, possibly offering programs at the elementary and middle school level. The district responded that it will “expand its use based on the educational plan of the district.” District trustee Paul Long, a longtime supporter of the farm project, said the district already has many programs in place that reach out beyond the high school. “We have a heifer program at Sheridan School, and the elementary school kids plant and harvest pumpkins at the farm,” he said. “The high school kids visit the other schools, too. We’re already doing a good job on that.” A Grand Jury recommendation that the district ensure that its foundation directors be familiar with laws and regulations was countered with a statement that the foundations are separate entities and it would be inappropriate to attempt to enforce any action on the foundations. The final version of the district’s response will be available on Western Placer’s Web site, www.wpusd.k12.ca.us.