By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In the two past contested elections for what now has become the controversy magnet of the Centinela Valley School Board, (as reported in a previous article regarding Superintendent Jose Fernandez’ generous $663,000 compensation package seen HERE) it was revealed that a major California construction firm TELACU poured large amounts of money into campaigns to elect their favored candidates. In return for the favor, the friendly school board awarded TELACU two construction bond measures on the ballot totaling nearly $200 million. Voters approved both, and TELACU was awarded contracts to manage the construction projects.
The Daily Breeze reports Centinela Valley officials have pointed out that as a result of the two successful bond measures — one in 2008, another in 2010 — major face-lifts have occurred or are in the pipeline for all three campuses. The projects have replaced old, sometimes crumbling facilities with state-of-the-art classroom wings, media centers, offices and commons areas.
Critics, on the other hand, say the whole thing smacks of a money grab for the interested parties at the expense of the taxpayers.
“The problem with Centinela Valley, and so many school districts and community colleges, is that they have become bond-passing machines that milk the public to pay for lavish construction projects, outrageous salaries and terrible loans,” said Mariano Vasquez, the plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing a recently passed parcel tax floated by Centinela Valley and four feeder elementary school districts.
“This causes a very harmful misallocation of scarce resources and capital that slowly brings ruin to the town.”
While the need for the new construction projects is of course subject to debate, the cozy relationship between TALACU, controversial Superintendent Jose Fernandez who took his position at approximately the same time TALACU began grooming the school board, and the company’s supported school board.
Packing the School Board
TELACU began its campaign to influence the Centinela Valley school board elections in 2009. The company donated $28,000 to a political action committee called Citizens for Better Schools, according to campaign finance reports obtained from the Los Angeles County Register-Recorder’s Office. Citizens For Better Schools, in turn, paid $55,000 to purchase mailers and other promotional materials touting three candidates: Rocio Pizano, Hugo Rojas and Maritza Molina.
Rocio, an incumbent’s, election committee raised $5,000 but Hugo and Maritza did not raise any monies themselves, deferring to the PAC’s campaigning.
Hugo, a karate instructor and former Hawthorne school board member with at least two DUIs on his record — and Maritza — then a 23-year-old recent college graduate — ousted two incumbents with demonstrated and legitimate education credentials. One of them, Rudy Salas, is the principal at Hawthorne Middle School. The other, Frank Talavera, is an educator who at the time was teaching at Gardena High School. Both opposed an effort to put a bond measure on the ballot in 2008.
TELACU’s preferred candidates were ultimately triumphant. In December 2009 — a month after the election — the new school board unanimously approved Superintendent Jose’s generous employment contract. Not long after, the board voted to put another $98 million bond measure on the ballot. In November 2010 and was passed by voters.
According to the Daily Breeze it is common for big construction companies to make financial contributions for the passage of bond measures but it is rare for them to finance individual school board members’ elections.
Jane Diehl a former longtime school board member serving the Redondo Beach Unified School District stated: “In our case, I doubt anybody got a dime. Most of the school board elections in Redondo are pretty sparse,” and said candidates there generally raise around $8,000. “If you want to win,” she said, “you gotta walk” and knock on doors.
In the Centinela Valley school district — which oversees Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools — TELACU hasn’t been the only heavy contributor to election campaigns.
Also contributing to Centinela’s 2010 effort to get a construction bond measure passed were law firms such as Dannis, Woliver, Kelley — which has a lucrative contract with the school district. (It donated $7,500.) Another law firm gave $5,000.
Once More Unto the Breech
In the 2011 school board race. Incumbents Sandra Suarez and Gloria Ramos fell out of favor with TELACU. Sandra expressed her doubts about the bond measure having called for knocking down much of Leuzinger High. By October 2010 she was fully opposed, and spoke out publicly.
In 2011, the investment firm Piper Jaffray of Minneapolis contributed $25,000 to Citizens for Better Schools, donating much of that to TELACU’s favored candidates.
Citizens for Better Schools later found two new candidates to support: banking executive Lorena Gonzalez, who was challenging Sandra; and Ugo Felizzola II, a 24-year-old financial analyst who was trying to unseat Gloria.
This time, the political action committee spent $82,000 on its campaign favoring those Lorena and Ugo. TELACU made a $10,000 donation to the PAC.
Because none of that money went to the candidates directly, they did not have to report the support. The committee spent at least $26,486 on each candidate. The money paid for slate mailers, door hangers, brochures and campaign signs, among other things, according to documents.
A political consultant closely aligned with TELACU met with leaders of the teachers union to request that they endorse the two political newcomers. The union declined, opting instead to endorse nobody.
The effort to oust Sandra was a success; Gloria narrowly emerged victorious over Ugo.
Sandra told Daily Breeze that prior to the elections, Superintendent Jose sometimes took her and other board members to expensive restaurants such as Houston’s in Manhattan Beach. The tab, she said, was often picked up by a law firm or by TELACU.
With much of the previously reported outrage of Jose’s exemplary compensation package was not merely benign but instead a malignant sleaze of undue influence, malfeasance, and patronage carefully orchestrated to pack a school board to dish out lucrative construction projects to a large construction firm, a national financial services company, and various lawyers who clearly do not share the same interests in the teachers and students the district is supposed to serve.
For further reading, see our previous article Public Expresses Outrage Over School District Superintendent’s $663,000 Compensation Package.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.