The Public Eye

Companies that profit from school construction bankroll bond campaigns

Construction, architecture, engineering and labor interests that could receive school building contracts are donating money to pass facilities bonds on Tuesday’s ballot.

Donors had directed more than $110,000 toward passage of three Sacramento County bond campaigns benefiting Natomas Unified, Folsom Cordova Unified and Robla school districts as of Oct. 21, according to election records and the campaigns.

Most funds come from companies and unions that could benefit from the building and refurbishing of schools. Bond campaigns use the money to produce mailers, signs and advertisements, as well as to cover the cost of consultants, phone banks and canvassing.

Financing bond campaigns with contributions from people likely to receive construction contracts isn’t ideal, said Michael Day, vice president of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association.

“When all the campaign contributions come from those who stand to make obscene profits, then we really need to question that particular plan,” Day said.

Architects contributed $23,000 of the $69,700 collected by Yes on Measure J, the campaign spearheaded by Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby for Natomas Unified. Unions gave $11,700, developers $8,500 and construction interests $8,500.

The building industry would benefit if the $129 million bond passes and a federal building moratorium expires. The community has lived under a building freeze since 2008, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined levees in the area were at risk of failing. Levee improvements backed by federal funding mean construction in the community could resume soon.

The bond would upgrade 19 schools in the growing district. The district also will need at least two new elementary schools to keep up with population growth, district officials said. A new district facilities plan calls for spending $360 million over 15 years on construction, maintenance and upgrades.

One of the biggest donors was the DLR Group, which gave $10,000 to the bond campaign. Last year, Natomas Unified paid the architectural firm $191,000 for its work on the district’s facilities master plan, completed in October. It also is working on the design of one of the district’s future schools, Natomas Unified officials said.

Landmark Construction, which donated $5,000 to the Measure J campaign, was involved in the construction of the Natomas High School Aquatic Facility and the Benvenuti Performing Arts Center at Natomas Charter School, according to information on its website. Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo, which donated $4,000 to the campaign, also has done legal work for the district.

Another big donor was a political action committee of the California Charter Schools Association, which contributed $10,000.

“We’re really excited about what is happening in Natomas,” said Laura Kerr, a regional director for CCSA. “It’s awesome to see a school board and a district and a community that is really focused on all kids.”

Natomas Unified Superintendent Chris Evans said the district prequalifies architects and solicits proposals. He said staff members evaluate each proposal.

“These same people have nothing to do with Measure J and usually don’t know who gave to Measure J,” Evans said.

He said the district has worked with the Sacramento Taxpayers Association through the Measure J process.

The Natomas bond measure will cost its taxpayers about $59 a year per $100,000 of property value, according to ballot material. The district has put three facilities bonds totaling $253 million on the ballot since 1992.

The Yes on Measure G campaign in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District had a slow start. The campaign didn’t file organizational paperwork until mid-September. It had collected $36,515 by Oct. 22.

If it passes, the measure will generate $195 million to update schools in Folsom neighborhoods north of Highway 50.

Most donations to the Measure G campaign came from engineering firms, law offices and unions, although many were in the $500 to $1,000 range.

Some donors do business with the district. Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP, the district’s legal counsel, spent $2,500 on the campaign. The district has paid the firm $1.12 million since the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to district spokesman Daniel Thigpen.

Stradling, Yocca, Carlson & Rauth donated $2,000 to the campaign. The law firm is the district’s bond counsel. Folsom Cordova Unified has paid the firm $13,576 for its services this fiscal year, Thigpen said.

Thigpen said the district passed a resolution this year that prohibits future contracts to campaign contributors who are not the lowest bidder unless there are extenuating circumstances. The district retained some flexibility to consider job experience and qualifications.

“While we never have given preferential treatment to contributors, this adds layers of transparency that goes above and beyond other districts,” Thigpen said.

Thigpen said his district also has worked with the Sacramento Taxpayers Association on its bond procedures.

Day, the taxpayers’ group vice president, said districts have begun to alter their approach but that the campaign finance model remains stuck in the past, with donors pursuing construction contracts after the bonds pass. He said school districts should raise money from community members rather than tapping the building industry.

“The only district that took a stand was the only district that suddenly had trouble raising funds for a bond campaign,” Day said.

The Yes on Measure K campaign for Robla School District has brought in the most money of the three – $83,256 – on paper. But Joshua Wood, executive director of Region Builders Inc., said that’s because the committee was originally set up to pass an El Dorado County growth-related ballot measure before his group walked away from it. Wood said the committee was later converted to support the Robla bond, and only a few thousand dollars will go toward the school effort while most of the funds pay off debt from the El Dorado campaign.

The tiny Robla district of just over 2,000 students wants $29.8 million to build a school and remodel the six it currently operates. The political action committee will use the money that’s left to send out automated phone calls to residents encouraging them to vote for the measure, Wood said.

Robla was a good candidate for funding, he said, because it has not had a bond measure for 20 years.

“It’s good for the industry and good to support a district that has managed the taxpayers’ money well,” Wood said.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.