OK, I admit it – I was wrong. More on that shortly. And more on the new budget. In the meantime, let’s start the recap of last night’s board meeting with yet another scandal. Sorry – “controversy.”

Before we get to the early fireworks, you should know that the union negotiations could be going better, which supports my belief that the district’s talk about how valued teachers are is just that. The trustees have so little interest in the welfare of teachers that not a single one chose last night to offer words of encouragement to the union leaders who were present last night.

Then it was scandal time. The board and the four district administrators who represent about a million dollars of your tax dollars via their compensation, did not see it coming…

Steve Ray is the Executive Director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy. He spoke at last night’s board meeting to inform the board about a company named Dudek, whose district contract was on the agenda for approval last night.

According to the Consent Calendar, item 12.a.3 was an “Authorization to Approve the Agreement with Dudek to Conduct a Biological Constraints Survey and Reporting Components Regarding Fencing at Banning [Ranch] Property.”

The work that Dudek was going to do concerns the property adjacent to the environmentally-sensitive Banning Ranch, for which there are plans to build homes and for which there is substantial community opposition.

The problem is that Dudek is also doing work for the developer. According to Ray, Dudek is “conducting biological consulting for the Banning Ranch Development.”

It is a clear conflict of interest. But none of that mattered to Deputy Superintendent and Chief Business Officer Paul Reed, who was aware that Dudek was working both sides of the street (he said so at around 7 p.m.) but agendized the deal for board approval anyway.

In a feeble attempt to explain his lapse of judgment, Reed told the board that “There is no legal conflict of interest.”

There is no such thing as a “legal” conflict of interest, despite Reed’s attempt to use the term to spin his way out of a jam. There is simply conflict of interest, or there is not. In this case, there is clearly a conflict of interest. Reed even tried to use the relatively low cost of the contract to justify his approval.

To her credit, Trustee Vicki Snell was all over this. “It’s not about the cost,” said Snell and went on to help Reed understand what he had done.

Reed did not put up much of a fight after that, telling the board, “We can find another firm [to do the survey].”

I thought it was over, and it should have been. But late contributions from Trustees Dana Black and Charlene Metoyer caused Reed to open the wound. “[Dudek] has the best information on the ground.”

Snell again: “They [Dudek] made a deal with the developer.”

Reed: “We are not dealing with the developer.”

As if that matters. It was clear after approximately 20 minutes of discussion that:

a) Reed did not believe he had created a conflict of interest in recommending Dudek, which is a startling insight into his state of mind.

b) His solution was to find another company. No comments from anyone about how to prevent this from happening again. And no reassurance that this has not happened before.

c) While the discussions got hot, the Superintendent, on whose watch this happened and who is ultimately responsible for this, said nothing. Not a word. He was quite content to let Reed twist in the wind while he tried to escape any responsibility for a debacle that involved one of the hottest civic issues in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. I’m sure it gave Reed much relief to know that his boss has his back when the chips are down.

The Consent Calendar was approved minus the Dudek deal.

Here’s what should have happened: Dudek should never have been recommended. But since they were, Reed should have taken an early temperature reading and owned the whole mess immediately and completely. All he had to say was, “Until I heard Mr. Ray’s comments, I did not appreciate that there was a conflict of interest. I am now recommending removal of this item from the Consent Calendar approval and I thank him for bringing this to our attention.” Succinct, and satisfying to everyone. Classy, too, eh?

That would have been the right thing to do. It would have restored faith in the process and presented Reed in a very positive light. But a transformation happens to too many people who rise to positions of power and/or authority: They forget that they are capable of mistakes and do not feel the need to apologize when they make one.

My concern now is that where there is smoke, there is fire. Until there is some process in place to prevent similar conflicts, I have no faith in the contract approval process, particularly since the board members have almost no clue about what they are voting on month after month.

Many thanks to Steve Ray for keeping everyone honest.

More rubber stamping and it’s now 7:30 and the Super has not uttered a single word during the meeting.

The next big item was Reed’s presentation of the 2015-16 budget. Reed did a good job of reducing a complex issue down to something palatable for the rest of us. Plus, he kept the silly, unprofessional PowerPoint images to a minimum and condescending remarks down to zero. In the end were were told that the budget would be in the black next year, but that there “very little” room for new programs.

Reed also used a slide to thank by name the staff that helped him work on the budget. That is the right thing to do.

I was wrong because I wrote in an earlier post that during or following Reed’s budget presentation, the board would lob some softball questions Reed’s way. But they did not. It is clearly one of the most important issues of the year – perhaps THE most important, but not a single trustee asked a question. Why? Because most of this is way over their heads.

What I cannot figure out is this: Costa Mesa is a city of approximately 110,000 people. The city’s budget includes money for police and fire protection, trash pick-up, street cleaning, street and facility maintenance, code enforcement, parks and recreation, and countless more year-round city services. The N-MUSD, on the other hand, has about 20% of the population of the city of Costa Mesa – approximately 21,000 students – who receive approximately 180 days of instruction each year. The budget for the entire city of Costa Mesa and all it provides is about $148 million. The budget for the N-MUSD is about $262 million.

Just sayin’…

Steve Smith