Olive Avenue Confidential: We need to know where bond money went

What we don't know may have already hurt us, potentially in the pocketbook, but definitely in terms of trust.

In 1997, 71% of voters supported a $112.5-million bond to repair decaying public school facilities across the Burbank Unified School District.

This investment attracted some $140 million in additional state and federal matching funds to benefit thousands of kids at 17 schools, and the city's future is no doubt better for it.

But when City Council members agreed earlier this summer to pitch in $14 million to help the district improve high school athletic fields, a fair question came up: If there isn't any bond money left, exactly how was it all spent?

The answer, so far, is that no one really knows.

Shockingly, school district officials are unable to produce a complete accounting of Measure B97 spending, in many cases lacking receipts or other records that would describe in detail exactly who got paid how much for doing what work at which school.

What's more disturbing is that the district's bond oversight committee was repeatedly denied such detailed information, even as projects were underway.

"We got information in a generalized sense, but we were never able to get records that specifically showed how the money was being spent," said former committee member Janice Lowers, a captain with the Burbank Police Department.

It wasn't for lack of trying.

"A number of us had questions about how money was spent, but we got stonewalled. We were told not to worry about it, and that's not a good answer," said former Burbank Mayor Michael Hastings, who was also on the committee.

Concerns included whether lack of contractor oversight or a conscious decision to cut costs was to blame for work that later had to be redone, including faulty plumbing at John Burroughs High School and problems with paving the Burbank High parking lot.

Neither alleges that any kind of malfeasance occurred, just that no one would know if it had. And bad things tend to happen when no one is paying attention (just ask anyone who lives in Bell).

The same year Burbank passed Measure B97, Pasadena voters approved a $240-million bond also aimed at fixing up public schools.

All seemed well until late 2008, when a tip from a concerned resident led Pasadena Weekly reporter André Coleman and I to report that shoddy district accounting practices helped thieves make off with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The missing money had been discovered thanks to the efforts of Pasadena schools Supt. Edwin Diaz, who hired a forensic accountant to investigate bond spending shortly after coming to Pasadena in 2007.

Like Lowers and Hastings, I'm not saying anything improper occurred with Burbank Unified's handling of the bond — other than dismal recordkeeping, of course, and a haughty disregard for the public's right to know its business.

But before Burbank school officials move forward on plans for another bond, the district must perform its own forensic accounting investigation of how previous bond proceeds were spent — if for no other reason than to simply restore confidence that they can, and will, perform due diligence in handling public funds.

Take heart that Burbank Unified Supt. Stan Carrizosa, who took the job only three weeks ago, agrees.

Carrizosa tells me he's been working to organize what records remain in order to facilitate an audit, which he'll discuss with Board of Education members as early as tomorrow's meeting.

"I think we owe it to the community to show them we can make the effort and leave no stone unturned," he said.

JOE PIASECKI is an Annenberg Fellow with USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a contributing editor for the Pasadena Weekly. He can be reached at piasecki@usc.edu.

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