Today’s secret school board meeting turned out to be not-so-secret. There was a healthy contingent of taxpayers there to give the board the what for over the Estancia pool bungling, and they did.

The meeting was in three parts. In part one, a district bureaucrat spoke at length about the discrepancy between what the district budgeted and the bids they received. Turns out that the bids were about $3 million more: $10 million instead of $7 million.

Now, before I go on, there is already an issue. Most reasonable people will understand if bids come in higher than projected. Happens all the time. In this case, no one would have thought much about this bid coming in at say two or three hundred thousand over. Stuff happens.

But $3 million? That should tell the board that there is a problem, namely, that whomever made the initial calculations is not qualified to do so and that this blunder has pushed back an already delayed important project even further.

But no one on the board brought it up. And the superintendent certainly did not say, “I’m shocked – shocked! – at the discrepancies in these figures.” More on that in a minute.

After being asked by Trustee Martha Fluor about the differences between a plaster-lined pool and the “Myrtha” type of pool he introduced, the same speaker went into great and unneeded detail about how they are constructed and blah, blah, blah, and why say it in seven words when you can say it in 700: One is plaster-lined and one is PVC-lined.

He went on to use the word “taxpayer” and saving them money, as though it were common practice. “Taxpayers are paying for these things,” he said.

Yes, we are. We’re also paying the high salaries of the members of the administration who were there today – plus their colleagues – and we expect more for our money. More on that later, too.

Then he dropped the bomb that everyone was waiting for: How much to reopen the Estancia pool and how long will it take? Answer: $100,000 and about two months.

$100,000 of taxpayer dollars utterly wasted because someone made the bad decision to authorize closing the pool. More on that, too, and I’d better write down these things I’m supposed to get back to for you…

But there is “wonderful news” said the bureaucrat. One of the two consultants in attendance says that the pool project can be completed for about $7 million with the same scope, but a new design.

Yay! Isn’t that great news? Yes, I know what you’re thinking: So if it can be done for $7 million, why are we having this meeting? Why wasn’t this shocking revelation made months ago by any one of the bureaucrats or the consultants they love, and why didn’t work begin a long time ago because if everyone had been doing their job, construction would be at least 1/3 of the way completed.

Those questions are called “logic,” and they don’t apply to the workings of the N-MUSD.

And what about best practices? Where was the data from other plaster vs. Myrtha pool users who could give us a clear picture of what we’re getting ourselves into? It wasn’ there because the bar for these presentation is set so low that in many cases, all the presenter has to do is show up, read the PowerPoint slides, answer a few softball questions, and sit down while the board rubber stamps whatever you recommend.

Before moving to Part II, there was this comment from Trustee Charlene Metoyer who seemed to advocate a tighter process in the new pool construction: “Changing your mind later is very expensive.”

Ho-boy. (NOTE: Metoyer’s seat is up for grabs this year)

Part deux was the public comments section and we had the good fortune to hear first from someone who gave the board the promised what for.  We learned that the Estancia aquatics program is suffering from the lack of a pool, in a very big way. We heard her say that if this mess had been in Newport Beach, there would be no mess.

I was the seventh speaker. Before I got up, people talked about this mistake, about transparency and integrity, about this “reckless irresponsibility,” and how (the speaker) was told back in October that it would take two months to get the pool open again and had the board done what they should have done, kids could be using the pool today. Right now.

Then it was my turn. I said hello, then asked N-MUSD Board President Vicki Snell the question to which everyone wanted to know the answer: “Who gave the final approval to close the pool?”

The response was the equivalent of “Huh?” Even a deer in headlights would have been caught off-guard less than Snell. I was asked what I meant; to repeat the question. So, even though I thought it was a pretty simple question, I asked it again in a slightly different way. Snell looked at the superintendent, who told me that he was “not able to share that information” because it was an HR matter and whatever.

Here, I have a confession to make: My question was a sucker punch; a trap. I was almost certain that when I asked who was responsible, that I was going to get some sideways response, and I did. So, goal accomplished, I sat down.

I didn’t need to hear who was responsible for closing the pool and creating this mess because I know who is responsible… Here’s what:

What the superintendent said and what he should have said are so far apart that he could never get to the place where it’s actionable for him. What he should have said is, “Mr. Smith, I understand the reason behind your question, but as far as I’m concerned, the answer is irrelevant. The fact is that I am responsible for everything that happens in this district, good or bad, and so ultimately, the responsibility is with me.”

He didn’t say that because he doesn’t know how. And if he didn’t say it about Swun Math, or the Mariners Gold Ribbon application, or the Estancia poles, or any of the many other messes on his watch, he sure as heck isn’t going to say it about a problem that can be solved with another $100,000 of taxpayer dollars. Taking responsibility is not in his DNA.

Which leads us to a discussion of the board’s responsibility. You are right if you believe that while the super is responsible for day-to-day stuff, it was the board who chose this guy and ultimately, they are to blame: The super works for the board. (Well, that’s the claim but we know better, don’t we?)

No argument here. Yes, the board chose this super.

What was clear at this meeting was that once again, the status quo is being preserved. The board and the super failed to understand the depth and breadth of this problem, choosing instead to treat it like an expense instead of a systemic flaw within the administration.

It’s a minor expense, too, right? Eh, what’s another $100K taxpayer dollars? When I ran for a school board seat in 2014, I questioned the effectiveness of the district’s travel budget of about $220,000, arguing that taxpayers were not being told of the benefits of the out-of-town travel to meetings and conventions or conferences. My opponent, Vicki Snell, who is now president of the board, said that the $220K was a “drop in the bucket.”

That makes $100,000 a well, I don’t know – what’s half of a drop? A droplet?

But let’s be clear here, the cost of reopening the pool is substantially more than $100,000 because it does not include staff time and expenses to right this wrong. That’s $100,000+ that could go to athletic equipment, field maintenance, or budgeted to teachers who still provide money for classroom items out of their own pockets.

Part III was a discussion of the new pool project and I’m not going to go into great detail here because the decision was delayed to another meeting.

During this section, however, some of the trustees took the time to express some outrage over how this mess happened in the first place. Fluor said that she is concerned about the level of transparency, that she is “irate,” and that the mistake was “unacceptable.” The she took it one giant step further and said that the board was told one thing about the pool but now they are learning otherwise. “There is a lack of trust in our own experts. It boggles the mind,” she said. Then she said, “I am very, very angry over this $100,000 mistake.”

Trustee Karen Yelsey then jumped aboard the outrage train and said that “… somebody should take responsibility for this.” She added, “I would like to know if there is somebody responsible for this.”

Of course there is… It’s you! You are one of seven people who voted to hire a superintendent who has created an environment in which people are afraid to rock the boat and who deliver only exactly what the superintendent wants you to know. Want to point fingers and place blame? Look in the mirror.

And this from Trustee Dana Black: “We were surprised ourselves.”

Well, you shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t, and I’m not on the board or in the administration. But I do have the ability to connect the dots, where you are unwilling or unable to, Mrs. Black, and this was an easy call.

I’ll leave you with this… The superintendent’s dodge was predictable and the trustee outrage is commendable if they follow through on it. But by the end of the meeting, despite unlimited opportunities, neither the superintendent nor any of the seven trustees bothered to say the two most powerful words about this whole debacle.

No one said, “I’m sorry.”

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD