The Coastal Post - July, 1998

A Fine Mess In San Geronimo; School In Desperate Situation

By Jim Scanlon

Trustees of the Lagunitas School District still cannot decide whether, or even when, to begin talking publicly about breaking their contractual relationship with their neighbor the French Ranch, to build a joint sewer/septic system to serve the school and the luxury home development.

This despite the fact that any benefits to the school that might have derived from the joint project have long since vanished and the school's having been paralyzed and placed in a position where it cannot begin construction it so desperately needs when each day of delay results in a steady loss of educational funds.

The critical starting date for completing construction before the new school year set for July 6, 1998, now seems impossible to meet due to complications involved in getting approval from the Board of Supervisors and State Regional Quality Control Board for the unusual "Community Septic System" proposed to serve the School and homes that have not yet been built and a Home Owners Association that also doesn't exist!

The Supervisors were scheduled to review county sponsorship and oversight of the project earlier in the day (June 23), but the matter was put off until June 30, 1998.

There is obviously a contentious power struggle going on at Civic Center.. Patrick Faulkner, Marin County Lawyer is against the County's accepting financial and legal responsibility for providing special oversight for the joint project. West Marin's Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who, before being elected created and promoted the joint sewage plan, has continued to push it aggressively through the county permit process and now the state permit process, where it seems stuck.

Where the Supervisors will go with this is anyone's guess. It seems hard to believe that the full board will act quickly on this to please Kinsey who is new on the Board. He seems to have John Kress as an ally, or at least a sympathizer. Whether they could get another Supervisor to provide a majority against the opposition of the County's lawyer Faulkner and others, remains to be seen. It isn't a county wide issue, but might easily become one.

Why is Kinsey so intent on pushing this project? While it is a given that a county supervisor has great influence within a county, that influence fades considerately in Sacramento, the capital of a state considerably bigger than most countries in the United Nations. A Supervisor is a nobody.

Kinsey is bright, sensitive, personable and liked in ways that his predecessor was not. The developer involved was one of Kinsey's political backers and another developer involved in this project has a potential interest in a "Community Septic System" for the Ecumenical Housing Development in Point Reyes Station. But developers here, and elsewhere understand that their are rules and regulators and limits to how far they can be pushed.

One small, but perhaps significant indication of Kinsey's myopia is that his own business, Design/Build Alliance still, after years of doing business in the county, is not registered with the County Clerk as required by ordinance. He may be heading for trouble if he doesn't know when to stop, cut his losses, and move on from a stalled or ill considered position.

However, be all this as it may, any delay in providing sponsorship satisfying the State, will be a disaster for the school. Although they don't talk about it much openly, School Trustees fear a law suit if they proceed on their own and financial chaos if they don't proceed sometime soon. The school is trapped in a trap it constructed itself.

The Gannet Corporation's Independent Journal, which has inconsistently covered this story, has recently taken an interest in it. After reluctantly accepting a half page paid political advertisement (at a cost of $1400), from "Save the Valley", a citizens group critical of the school/developer contract, the Gannet IJ surprisingly printed an article by "Save the Valley" activists ("Taxpayers and the environment must not take a hit", June 20,1998) A letter by Basia Crane of Ross, critical of Kinsey's motivation was also printed. The IJ report of the Trustee meeting of June 23 by a reporter not in attendance, was so bland as to be unreal. It's hard to figure out what big corporations are up to.

Wisely, or unwisely, "Save the Valley" has gone to great lengths to avoid making an issue of the plight of the school, not even mentioning the it once in public statements.

School Trustee Richard Sloan, who opposed the contract with the development from the beginning, received no support for setting a "drop dead" date beyond which the Board would break with the developer. Newly elected Trustee Reed Stockton advocated patience. "There is nothing we can do anyway. We're helpless".", he said. "We will know within 45 days." If the developer isn't able to go forward, Stockton would ask for negotiations.

Steve Charrier, the Trustee who most forcefully promoted the benefits of the joint sewage plan was still optimistic about the approval process." I think it will start in July. We are only a couple of weeks away", he said. But later in the meeting, as the school's gloomy position became clearer, he said to Sloan, "No body likes the position we are in"

And if discussion of the quagmire the school was in was not bad enough, a review of the bids to complete construction of the septic system were equally depressing. The lowest bid was substantially higher than had been projected by the District's consultant by about $70,000.

With a possible shortfall of $60,000 from unanticipated pumping costs which may or may not be paid through the remaining funds the District controls from a "hardship grant' from the "State Department of Education, the prospect of higher construction costs was not welcome. Would the school have to use money from its general fund? Would it have to cut a teacher or two? Who knows.

The spread of the four bids, the highest being almost twice the lowest, was an indication that perhaps there might be unanticipated mandated changes that might further raise construction costs.

And, to make matters worse, it was not completely clear if the money that the school had expended from the hardship grant would be accepted by the state. Guidelines for using grant funds specify that only a certain percentage may be used for engineering expenses and exclude completely maintenance costs. District staff will be conferring with the State Department of Education on these funding issues which may be helped by extra money available to the state this year.

Trustees approved a proposed budget for the next year although Trustee Sloan complained, "In my 25 years of looking at school financing, I've never seen a situation like this."

Sloan also questioned an item on the agenda relating to the construction of a recycling center on land belonging to the French Ranch and the San Geronimo Golf Course next to the school . Construction is scheduled to begin in July. "How can they begin to pour concrete?", he asked, "How can they have an easement from French Ranch when we have been denied one all this time?" No one knew.

As it stands there are many obstacles to overcome before construction can begin. It seems safe to predict that there will be delays and at the next meeting the Trustees will decide to wait yet again to see what happens. This is getting to be like a bad marriage.

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