Is this any way to run a railroad? Or a school board? Is this any way to treat the residents of Los Angeles County and the business community?
I write regarding the Beverly Hills Unified School District’s improper use of voter-approved school construction bond funds to pay for attorneys fighting the extension of the Wilshire Boulevard subway. Over the past six months, I have taken my concerns to the Los Angeles County Office of the County Counsel, the California attorney general and the Los Angeles County district attorney. To date, all three offices have taken the French approach to work in August in addressing my concerns.
Why my persistence? Because a subway to the Westside is decades late and no one has the right to use money earmarked by the voters for school construction to stand in its way. Poor transportation is among the leading obstacles to economic development in Los Angeles County. Collectively, commuters waste thousands of hours and gallons of gasoline driving through our infamous traffic to get to jobs on the Westside.
The district has spent several million dollars in school construction funds battling the Metro Purple Line subway route. A recent issue of the Beverly Hills Weekly documents the board’s expenditures on lawyers and redundant environmental review.
This spending is not authorized by voters who in 2008 approved Measure E, the Beverly Hills school construction bond measure. As county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has noted, the use of Measure E funds for something other than building and improving educational facilities, as the voters intended, “certainly raises an eyebrow.”
It is time the L.A. business community joined with me in calling for an investigation to determine whether the district should cease and desist, and repay the voters of Beverly Hills the millions it has improperly wasted. Additionally, law enforcement should look into whether school board members have violated civil or criminal statutes acting as they have. Spending voter-approved school construction funds on attorneys is no different from the school board authorizing construction funds be spent on new cars or other gifts for board members. Giving the board carte blanche to spend voter-approved school construction funds on whatever it wants was not the intention of the voters when they approved Measure E.
State law requires that money raised through such voter-approved school bonds be used only for the projects outlined in the approved list. Measure E authorized $334 million worth of bonds to pay for a general list of goals, which included “safe and modernized school facilities ... necessary structural seismic safety repairs, (to) upgrade, repair and reconstruct aging classrooms, infrastructure, multi-use, gyms, libraries, science, technology and labs.”
According to a recent performance audit, the district had not completed construction for any major project other than the Horace Mann School auditorium renovation as of June 30, 2013. It has been nearly five years since the measure passed.
The district is apparently operating under the guidance of a legal opinion that defends the use of the funds to fight the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This is a curious, self-serving legal opinion that might be against public policy and is certainly negatively impacting me and hundreds of thousands of other L.A. commuters in that it is impeding extension of the subway. Even one day more is too long to wait for this critical piece of regional transit infrastructure.
As a county resident and public transit rider, I am negatively impacted by the Beverly Hills school board’s contravention of the law and will of the voters in their approval of Measure E. So is the region’s economic development.
It is time the business community stood together in calling for an investigation into the actions of the Beverly Hills school board. This is no way to build a railroad or run a school district.
Joel Epstein is a lapsed lawyer and L.A. strategic communications and public affairs consultant who focuses on transportation, development and other urban issues.
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