|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, November 15, 2004
Contra Costa Times 11-15-04
Strings on gift to school upset some
Cash-strapped schools are always delighted by donations, but what happens when a sizable cash gift comes with hefty strings attached? At Pleasant Hill's College Park High School, the answer involves the donation of a state-of-the-art athletic track, $1.5 million in public funds and some very peeved parents.
"Since when does a private individual get sole control over the spending of tax-derived public funds?" said Scott Taylor, a College Park parent and member of the school's sports booster group.
In 2000, College Park parent Dawn Block donated $400,000 for a new nine-lane track, with the proviso that the district commit to building a "world-class" competitive track and field venue with spectator grandstands, concessions, an announcer and press box and 24 other amenities.
But that 4-year-old promise could involve as much as $1.5 million in public money. At issue now is $500,000 in state bond funds, available with the passage in March of Proposition 55, which Mt. Diablo district officials earmarked for bleacher seats at the new track.
Some College Park parents, P.E. teachers and others are irate. Bleachers are a wonderful thing, but a new all-weather, synthetic-turf field inside the new track could be used by College Park P.E. students as well as school and community football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby teams.
"I was overwhelmed by the donation. It was an overwhelmingly nice thing to have happen for a school, but it's worthwhile to go back a step," said board member Gary Eberhart.
"Why have bleachers around a field that is unsatisfactory to begin with?" Eberhart said. "Now's the time to re-evaluate that decision."
College Park spends $10,000 each fall to rent Diablo Valley College's football stadium, just across the street, and also spends $20,000 a year on soccer field rental, said College Park athletic director Bob Moon.
A new field could generate rental revenue that could help fund bleachers later on.
"You can't rent out the bleachers," Moon said. "With soccer, football, youth groups, you have money coming in. You have an opportunity to do both. However, the district has made a commitment to Dawn Block. Trouble is, it's $1.5 million worth of commitment."
Negotiated behind closed doors, the Block agreement was approved at a public Mt. Diablo school board meeting Sept. 12, 2000. It laid out the terms of the donation of 5,000 shares of Commerce One stock, described amenities the school was to build and established an oversight committee for the project.
That committee consisted of College Park principal Dennis Berger, eighth-grade teacher Chuck Woolridge and five members of Block's family, including her husband, Pleasant Hill vice mayor Michael Harris, her ex-husband Spencer Allen and their two daughters, who were 14 and 16 at the time.
But this is not just a bleacher vs. field battle.
"Prop. 55 (funds) are public funds -- tax dollars -- which should be spent on school. An agreement with district staff and five members of one family? There was no community outreach to get an opinion," Pleasant Hill resident Clint Tubbs told Mt. Diablo board members at their Nov. 9 meeting.
"Committing money when the wishes of the community are going in a different direction is irresponsible," said boosters club president Reno LaSala.
Superintendent Gary McHenry said administrators met with parent fund-raising groups at each campus.
"We did not ask at the time if they represented the total community," he said. "I don't feel it's our responsibility to go out and (gauge) the community. The only person we can hold responsible is the principal at the school."
"Many times there's an equity issue among our schools," said board member Richard Allen, who is not related to the Block-Allen family. "We can't control the parent community, if they have a couple parents who want to donate a football field. The one thing we can control is the district funds."
Mt. Diablo is certainly not the only district to grapple with this issue. Both Lafayette and Moraga's school boards set strict policies on donations last year to maintain parity among schools in their districts. In Moraga, donors may note a preferred use, but the superintendent and board retain the right to split the donation among schools or use it for another, similar purpose.
And both communities have education foundations, which can foot the bill for large-scale programs for all schools.
The massive Mt. Diablo district, with its diverse population, has no education foundation, and the fund-raising abilities of its various school communities vary dramatically.
"It's inherently unequal," said Mt. Diablo assistant superintendent Dick Nicoll. "Even if the district equalizes its funding, there are differences in what a community can provide."
No one doubts the beauty and the value of the College Park track. Nicoll noted that many items on the agreement's "desired elements" list had already been donated or purchased by College Park track fans. He said Spencer Allen got a great deal on the vault and jump landing pads used in Olympic trials and other high-end championships. To Olympians, those pads are for single use only. To College Park, they were a steal.
And the field issue is not dead.
Richard Allen and fellow board members said they had been inundated by e-mails and phone calls on the issue.
"I feel bound because we did commit to the bleachers, but the community spoke loudly on this one," he said.
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