The Coastal Post - April, 1999

Sewage System Plagues Lagunitas School; "Budget Cuts Will Be Made"

By Jim Scanlon

Serious problems with its wastewater treatment system being built in partnership with the French Ranch Development, continue to plague the Lagunitas School District.

On March 1, the County Department of Environmental Health wrote the District to immediately stop operating its sand filter system after a high pressure pipe, which was incorrectly installed, failed during a heavy rainstorm, resulting in a sewage spill adjacent to the school and Lagunitas Creek.

Quoting the letter: "The premature operation of the...wastewater system has resulted in an unlawful discharge of sewage to the surface of the ground as well as the nearby creek...in violation of Marin County Code chapter 18.06.040 (c)."

The District was ordered to immediately cease and desist until its system was certified as in compliance and an operating permit was issued by the County.

The letter from County Health was answered the next day, "on behalf of the School District" by Norman Hantzsche, the School District's consultant who wrote back, "...we respectfully object to your order...".

Basically Hantzshe argued that the system was being operated with the approval of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, that it wasn't in violation of the cited code because of the heavy rainfall, that the District was not obligated to obtain certification from the County and that a County operating permit would be obtained when the system was finished.

Continuing to speak for the School District he goes on, "The School District wishes to maintain a cooperative working relationship with the County during the completion of construction..."., and "invites" County Health to visit and inspect the system, but warns, "We strongly object to your demand to revert to a pump-and-haul operation due to the unnecessary financial burden that this would cause [the school]"

He continues: "If you insist on pursuing this demand we suggest that County Counsel's Office contact the School District's attorney..." In other words, "Talk to our lawyer"

Although the Trustees of the School District met on March 4, 1999, the "Cease and Desist" letter of March 1, was not presented to the Board, as it had not, apparently, been officially received. Two special meeting with State and County officials were held on March 5 and 8, to determine what to do about the impasse.

A major problem became apparent in that the State granted temporary permission to use the half completed system. Normally the state requires an Operating Permit from the County and there was none in this case. There is, however, no provision in the County Code to grant a permit until the System is completed. The contract to complete the last stage has not even been signed.

This confusing situation stems directly from Marin County's Supervisors agreeing (5-0) to be the "legal entity" and provide oversight to the unusual, unprecedented, joint , developer/school district wastewater system. The Supervisors, in their haste, to promote Supervisor Steve Kinsey's "win-win" public/private project neglected to think through what they were actually doing and didn't pass an ordinance to guide County Health.

Other points of contention were that neither the School nor the French Ranch had sent the state monthly monitoring reports during construction and that the school still had not even officially reported the sewage spill.

State Water officials are reviewing the monitoring requirements of the developer and the school but in the meantime are requested that the School conduct the monitoring program specified in the permit issued last July. The School District's Construction Consultant, Jim Walton was quoted as saying the cost of such monitoring "...exceeded $50,000 per year...and would bankrupt the School District".

The result of the meeting was that the School would be allowed to continue using its system while County Health consults with County Council to see how they might legally allow operation to continue without a permit. State Water officials will review monitoring requirements. It seems obvious that County and State officials were bending over backwards to make exceptions for the financially troubled school. Emotional Meeting

On March 16, the Board of Trustees held its regular bi-weekly meeting and, as usual, the wastewater system dominated the agenda. There was some relief that the county was not enforcing the Stop Work Order, however there were emotional outbursts around issues raised by Trustee Richard Sloan the only Trustee to consistently oppose the wastewater partnership and to question its implementation.

Sloan, a Trustee with twenty years experience, said he was concerned as to who speaks for the District in correspondence and in meeting with state and county officials. He also questioned the procedure for notifying Trustees of emergency meetings. He thanked Trustee Reed Stockton for attending the last meeting, but said he too would have liked to be informed.

He also raised a number of questions around the renewal of the contract of Jim Walton, their construction consultant who is charged with overseeing projects that have resulted in expensive delays. These include, installing the wrong electrical panel, installing the wrong pressure pipe, not completing work on time, not sending and paperwork to state officials. His (admittedly) crude estimate of what the district might be owed for contract violations were from $45,000 to $75,000.

While presenting his concerns, Sloan was interrupted twice by Chairman Jeanne Marlowe who asked each time, "Do you want to make a speech, or do you want answers?" Sloan , visibly upset, excused himself and went outside . When he returned he asked his questions again but there were basically no answers.

There was some discussion of the $50,000 per year cost of monitoring the system mentioned by Walton which, " would bankrupt the School District". Was it in the permit or wasn't it? Sloan recalled seeing it and questioning it. Others said it wasn't there. It was also unclear if Walton was still employed by the District as his contract expired last November. Was he responsible until completion? If not, why was he at the meeting?

There is no telling when the school's wastewater fiasco will end or what the results will be. The Regional Water Quality Control Board may fine the District. There is an unverified rumor that there is landslide activity on one of the leach fields.

Of utmost importance however, is that the State Allocation Board will consider approving the School's grant expenditures on March 24. This Board will consider presentations from schools from Alisal Union Elementary in Monterey to Woodland Joint Unified in Yolo County. The list covers ten single spaced pages. How this Board rules (i.e. what its staff recommends) could really force the school into receivership. (The Coastal Post will attempt to get this information before going to press)

It seemed strange that with all the turmoil and talk from consultants about the schools being bankrupted by waste water costs, the Trustees approved a budget report which was expected to convince county educational officials that the District, in deficit now, would not be in deficit in the future.

What is definite is that "Cuts will be made". But who , what and when?

State Board Bails Out Wastewater Excesses

On March 25, 1999, the State Allocation Board routinely approved a recommendation of its staff to reimburse the Lagunitas School District for all cost overruns so far in connection with its controversial wastewater treatment system in partnership with the French Ranch Development in San Geronimo. (See story abouve) Furthermore, the state agreed to allocate the funds within the current fiscal year obviating the necessity for the District to borrow and incur interest charges.

While the wastewater system is still not completed, and the District has other financial hurdles to surmount, this action by the State Board removes an immediate threat to the District's financial solvency.

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