By Marsha Sutton
A direct-mail piece was sent out two weeks ago to many residents of the 92014 and 92130 zip codes, about the $76.8 million General Obligation bond initiative the Del Mar Union School District trustees voted to place on the November ballot.
In the famous words of a former governor and president, “There you go again.” The missteps that occur with uncommon regularity in Del Mar just keep on coming.
This four-page full-color glossy piece, devoid of meaty details, includes “frequently asked questions” and a letter from DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg outlining the district’s sketchy need for more money.
The ostensible intent of the mailer is to inform constituents about the bond, which asks voters to approve taxing themselves $8.44 per $100,000 in property value annually, for about 30 years, for a vague assortment of facility upgrades.
A list in the mailer of what the bond will fund includes constructing “modern facilities to prevent overcrowding.” Although the district’s enrollment is currently declining, with empty seats at several schools, this refers to a projected need in the distant future to build a ninth school, based on long-range estimates.
Also on the list is to “repair or replace leaky roofs.” Leaky roofs? Is this a current problem in the district’s relatively new schools or another anticipated future need?
General Obligation bond money is supposed to be spent on existing overcrowding and on improving or upgrading facilities in immediate need of repair and modernization. The money is not to be used for some far-off scenario or a dreamed-up wish list.
Here’s another one: “Create potential budget savings through increased efficiency that could be used to help offset state budget cuts, attract and retain qualified teachers and protect the quality of education in our schools.”
GO bond money is not to be used for teachers’ salaries, nor to “offset state budget cuts” by using the money as a way to preserve the general fund and insulate reserves in a budget crisis.
Perhaps the biggest overall objection to the mailer is that it blurs the line between “information” and “advocacy” – an important legal distinction for campaign material.
Although it’s clear the mailer’s intent is to advocate in favor of the bond, the district’s lawyers have deemed it “informational” which is allowed.
Producing such a mailer certainly violates the spirit of the law, which prohibits public agencies from using taxpayer money to lobby taxpayers for more taxpayer money. But it doesn’t specifically state, “Vote for this bond,” so it gets the go-ahead from the district’s team of attorneys and consultants.
Because the mailer’s return address was the school district’s main office, the question was if the DMUSD paid for this piece and how much it cost.
Delay, evade, dismiss
“It was paid for by local sponsors,” said McClurg, on Aug. 31. Curiously, she claimed she didn’t know who they were and declined to be more specific. “I’d have to find out more information about that. But it has not been funded by the district.”
Would the district be billed for it later? Would the campaign committee be reimbursing the district in the future? No and no, she said.
She insisted the mailer was “informational and not campaigning” so the district could legally pay for and distribute the piece. Fine, but who paid for it if the district didn’t?
With a promise to name these mysterious “sponsors,” I waited. And waited. Until, after days passed and several calls to her were not returned, I asked again in an email, “Who are these people? If the district didn’t pay a cent, as you say, then who did?”
This came back from McClurg: “The district worked with a bond planning and information consultant (TBWB Strategies) to develop and produce the informational mailing.” [I’m omitting here her hype about how great the piece is, how these mailers are commonplace, and how counsel approved it.]
“Due to miscommunication between my office and our consultant,” her note continued, “the consultant has agreed to cover the cost of the publishing and mailing. The consultant will not seek to be paid or reimbursed for this expense from the district.”
Miscommunication? This reply raised more questions than it answered. Consultants paying for a direct-mail campaign without expecting reimbursement is an unfamiliar concept.
Because this sounded odd, the next request was to see the contract with the bond consultants, and any relevant invoices. These contracts are public documents that should have been made available when the board voted to place the measure on the ballot, if not long before.
For example, the San Dieguito Union High School District, which also has a bond measure before voters this November, made its contract with the same consultants public in February, with amendments made public in March.
Yet Del Mar’s superintendent chose to treat my request as an official California Public Records Act, giving her 10 days to comply and transforming a business conversation into adversarial legal wrangling.
The mystery sponsor
Frustrated by McClurg’s delaying tactics, I called the consultant directly. Charles Heath, partner of TBWB Strategies consulting firm based San Francisco, dutifully returned my call the same day. So who paid for the mailer?
“There’s some history here,” Heath began. He explained that the bond process started with former DMUSD supt. Jim Peabody. Then there was a transition to McClurg when she took over on July 1.
“After we worked with Dr. McClurg and her staff to develop the piece and print the piece and mail the piece, she was caught off-guard by the cost,” Heath said.
He explained that TBWB’s previous arrangement with Peabody, that the district would cover the costs, was apparently not transmitted to McClurg. He said he was “working under an assumption that that information had been transferred internally” and accepted the blame for not making her aware of this.
“It was an oversight on my part,” he said. “I should have been more clear with Dr. McClurg about the costs associated with the mailer.”
So McClurg thought TBWB was paying for it, when TBWB assumed the district was. Why didn’t she say so in the first place?
Heath said he worked with the district to develop the message in the mailer, “in conjunction with their legal counsel, in order to raise awareness and distribute information about this issue.”
Because it meets the legal definition of an informational and not an advocacy piece, “it is a legitimate expense of the school district to educate and inform their electorate,” Heath contended.
Even so, due to the misunderstanding and to maintain good client relations, TBWB will pick up the costs, he said, and the district will not be billed for any expenses related to the mailer.
Heath was also forthright about the contract TBWB has with Del Mar Union. He said there are two components: expenses and fees.
The expenses include hard costs “associated with printing and postage and things of that nature that under normal circumstances we would bill to the district,” he said. “And then there’s our consulting fee which is paid if the bond is successful.”
If the measure passes in November, TBWB will be paid $25,000 for each issuance of the bond, he said.
Here’s my favorite part of our conversation: “It’s a public contract,” Heath said. “You’re welcome to request it from the district.”
Culture of secrecy
McClurg wouldn’t tell me but I learned from Heath that the cost of the printing was $2,400, the postage was $2,470, and the number of pieces printed was 13,492.
To be clear, for less than $5,000, McClurg dithered, prevaricated and inexplicably stonewalled requests for information about a mailer that was a legal district expense, being technically “informational” and not advocacy (as questionable as those labels are).
So why the secrecy about the “sponsor” of the mailer and reluctance to explain the “miscommunication”?
Why deflect a request for a contract that’s public information? Why did McClurg escalate that request for a public contract into a full-blown CPRA demand, a decision that now involves unnecessary legal expenses for the DMUSD?
Clearly, this is not a district that operates under the guiding principles of transparency and accountability. It’s a sad day when a private political consulting firm is more candid and cooperative than the local publicly-funded school district.
The Del Mar Union School District’s dogged determination to withhold public information and unacceptable disregard for the public’s right to know does not inspire confidence. A school district that places more value on secrecy than full disclosure deserves to expect resistance from voters at the polls this November.
— Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.