RSM Republican Assy. Meeting featured Spitzer, Mayor Neil Blais & CUSD Trustees

Tonight I attended the Rancho Santa Margarita Republican Assembly Town Hall meeting that was held at the Bell Tower adjacent to their city hall. The 65 in attendance were mostly concerned parents of children enrolled in the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD), who came to learn, and later question the panelists, on the CA budget crisis as it relates to cuts within CUSD. CUSD is the 12th largest school District in CA with an enrollment of roughly 50,000 students.

After the pledge of allegiance unit president Jennifer Beall introduced elected officials in the meeting. This was followed by Councilman/Town Hall moderator Tony Beall reading a brief bio of each panel member. The panelists were: RSM Mayor Neil Blais, 71AD Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, CUSD Trustees Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen.

Note: All of the three CUSD Trustees were elected in November 2006.

The main focus of the two and a half hour meeting was the proposed $28 million (plus) in budget cuts for the 2008, 2009 school year.

In discussing the state budget crisis Mayor Blais opened the forum by reassuring the audience that the city of RSM had planned ahead and had set aside 100 percent of the budget in a reserve account. He explained Prop 1A in which the state can borrow up to eight percent from cities that must be repaid within three years (without interest). He added that cities could borrow from state Bond funds but those funds must be repaid.

Next to speak was Assemblyman Spitzer who has a passion for supporting children in public schools. He shared an experience where he was a Trustee of the Brea School District where he discovered a scandal where student grades were altered in the Brea/Olinda High School.

A side issue he commented on was his “disappointment by [the lack of] progress of [MCAS] El Toro, stating that the County gave the airport parcel to the city of Irvine for development, not an Orange balloon flying above the site.

Assemblyman Spitzer than shared how, along with assistance from Steve Baric of the CA Republican Lawyers Association, he was able to join as an intervener to block the governor’s plan of an early release of 23,000 criminals.

Todd told us that the three top issues he supports are public safety, education and aide to the needy. With regard to the needy he differentiated those with true needs by adding “I can be compassionate but not stupid.”

He told us that lay off notices will be going out to the District on March 15th. Todd added that this will be “a long year” and alerted us to anticipate “a lot of scare tactics.”

Following Todd was Trustee Addonizio who mentioned the pending $28 million in cuts yet they are still awaiting to see the school District budget which they are to receive on Friday for a Special Board Meeting to vote on the proposed budget on February 25th, the following Monday.

Gilbert comment. That’s nice. Seventy-two hours, over a weekend, and they are to be prepared to formulate a critical budget adjustment.

Next to speak was Trustee Bryson who said their predecessors, some of whom were in office for up to 18 years, were simply not prepared. They had an attitude of “play now–pay later.” Anna said the District has some very gifted teachers. They are not the problem. She told us that the “last five budgets, before 2007, were in the red.” The District was “spending money that didn’t exist.”

Her angst was that there was no competitive bidding on Contracts by her predecessors. She cited a plumbing contractor who quit shortly after she started asking questions. An architect enjoyed 14 years of contract awards that were never competitively bid. She recognized that they now have to find areas to cut and will take necessary action. Her first being transportation followed by legal costs. Another area that troubles Anna is their trash hauling where documentation can easily be fudged.

As to the new administration building and staff Anna said “we don’t need a lot of icing on the cake–we need teachers” adding “after all they work with your children.”

Unfortunately they are only three of a Board of seven. She said that everything they try to do they end up losing on 4-3 votes.

She mentioned that each school District is to maintain a mandatory minimum reserve above two percent. Once they drop below that number the state can take over the District operations. She commented that with roughly a nine percent reserve level the Irvine school District will probably not suffer any cuts in their programs.

The next topic was the new San Juan Hills High School where the majority approved funding for a track and stadium with funding from a capital fund account that cannot be used for instruction. Although they are somewhat restricted as to how said funds can be used, they do have four other schools in the District that could have received some of those funds which could have been used for maintenance.

Last to speak was Trustee Larry Christensen who pretty much agreed with everthing that the others had stated.

After the presentations there were roughly a dozen attendees who asked a variety of questions ranging from ongoing Brown Act violations that must be remedied to class size reduction, fingerprinting of volunteers and state Grant funding.

Note: The Ralph M. Brown Act is the state’s open meetings for local legislative bodies law. While admitting these violations it appears that some Board members continue to violate the Act.

Assemblymember Spitzer stayed to the end and did participate in part of those exchanges.

Having been a CRA unit president and member for over 10 years, and having attended several other OC unit meetings, I commend the RSM Republican Assembly for a well attended/informative interactive meeting.

About Larry Gilbert