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

August 04, 2010

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.

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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.

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