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School district 'volunteers' oversee shutdown of redevelopment agencies

But they may not have the experience necessary for the complex task

With billions of dollars at stake, school district representatives charged with overseeing the shutdown of about 400 redevelopment agencies may be underprepared.

Seven-member local oversight boards consisting of representatives from K-14 districts, the county, the city and special districts are now responsible for vetting decisions about how the former agencies will be dismantled and how the property taxes that previously went to redevelopment will be spent.

But some observers are concerned that many school district representatives are not well equipped to review the complex contracts and financial arrangements left in redevelopment’s wake.

To fill the gap, the San Mateo County Office of Education has been hosting meetings twice a month to help school district officials get up to speed.

“But we might be unique,” said Barbara Christensen, director of community and government relations for the San Mateo Community College District, who is serving on five oversight boards in the county. “I’m sure that there are some schools that don’t even know how to spell redevelopment.”

In a report earlier this year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office also expressed concern that school district representatives might be less familiar with the types of projects and financial matters associated with redevelopment. The office suggested that the state should provide $1 million to help train K-14 oversight board members, but no additional funds have been allocated. To fill the gap, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which advises school districts on financial matters, has offered several workshops to help educate school officials.

“Even a district staff person who is an experienced school finance person generally has very little background that is directly relevant to redevelopment agencies,” said Dante Gumucio, CEO of Public Economics Inc., an economic consultancy firm that specializes in helping school districts with redevelopment issues and has led the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team workshops.

Not all school officials agree about school officials’ level of preparedness. “I’ve been working with the redevelopment agencies for the last 10 years and they’re not out of the ordinary for me,” said Doug Claflin, assistant superintendent of business services at the Etiwanda School District. He said that his work with bond issuances for school facilities has prepared him for his position on the Rancho Cucamonga oversight board.

In some cases the oversight boards are finding potentially illegal items in the budgets.

A chief business official for Santa Cruz City Schools serving on the local oversight board sent an e-mail to the state complaining about the city's failure to disclose key information to the oversight board, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

The state Department of Finance and county auditors are also charged with reviewing the former redevelopment agencies’ budgets. The state has already returned over two dozen budgets because of questionable payments, California Watch previously reported.

Members of the oversight boards work on a volunteer basis.

After the former redevelopment agencies are dissolved, it’s unlikely most districts will see any additional revenue. Instead of increasing school budgets, property taxes allocated for schools will offset payments previously made by the state to ensure all districts meet the required funding level.

Only districts whose revenue from local property taxes exceeds minimum funding levels — known as basic aid districts — might see more money. They make up about 10 percent of the 1,000 school districts in the state.

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