Gilman: Time for transparency on San Jose Unified’s employee housing initiative

    On Sept. 10, San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) emailed constituents notifying them of a Board of Education Special Session on Sept. 23 at San Jose High School. The board will consider conducting an in-depth analysis for employee housing at four locations — Parking Lot 9 at SJUSD Offices, River Glen K8 School, Second Start-Pine Hill Non-Public School and MetroED Non-Instructional Property.

    The announcement represents a major milestone for the District’s Master Plan for San Jose Unified Properties which encapsulates the employee housing initiative. In Sept. 2018, SJUSD identified nine properties under evaluation for employee housing. The stated intent was to pare the list down to a smaller number of sites by fall 2019 with the eventual goal of providing affordable rental options for roughly 10% of its employees at a range of income levels. The school campuses ultimately chosen for employee housing will be demolished and relocated.

    Three of the original nine properties are on the just-announced short list, and a new property (MetroED) has been added. Although families and staff associated with Bachrodt, Bret Harte, Gardner, Leland, Ohlone and Olinder are no doubt relieved that their neighborhood schools are (apparently) not among the four prioritized sites for housing, all SJUSD residents should be vigilant. At least some of the schools on the original list remain within the scope of the Master Plan and could be subject to future “enrollment balance” objectives.

    Throughout the Master Plan process, SJUSD officials have resisted community pleas for visibility and public participation in the research and analysis process. SJUSD Superintendent Nancy Albarrán rejected a proposed Citizens Advisory Committee (COC) for employee housing that would be comprised of parent and teacher representation from each school under consideration. COCs are commonly used by school districts, including San Jose Unified, as a vehicle for facilitating public visibility and input to major initiatives.

    Analytical rigor and public disclosure have been sorely lacking since the inception of the Master Plan. The fundamental purpose of the employee housing initiative is to reduce employee attrition. A logical starting point for a multi-million-dollar program of this nature would be to first survey SJUSD employees. Surprisingly, the district has not produced any formal studies reflecting the wants and needs of its diverse workforce.

    Housing preferences are a function of multiple variables. Household income, number of household members, rental price points, as well as proximity to recreation-entertainment attractions, extended family, and spousal place of employment are just of few of the considerations. SJUSD could have saved a tremendous amount of time and money if it had performed this basic research a year ago, before evaluating the feasibility of nine properties.

    The district waited until this month to announce its short list of potential housing sites, yet as far back as June, Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon reported that initial assessments on all nine properties had been completed. McMahon was responding to questions from Trustee Kimberly Meek about the status of work performed by The Schoennauer Company, LLC., a property development lobbyist and consulting firm hired by the district in March. In fact, between March and June, the SJUSD board approved a combined $50,500 in contracts with two external firms for consulting, communications and project management services. To her credit, Meek was the only board member to vote against authorizing the contracts.

    In July, a public records request for all work product by Schoennauer Company was filed with SJUSD by a district resident. Many SJUSD families wanted to know the contents of the Schoennauer report. The request was not addressed within the 21-day period required by state law, prompting a second request. Stunningly, the SJUSD public affairs officer asserted that no records exist. A professional consulting firm under contract with SJUSD for three months did not produce a single report, presentation, memo or email summary.

    It is also curious that the district’s short list of potential housing sites includes the MetroED Non-Instructional Property. It was not among the nine properties the SJUSD Board directed staff to evaluate, and at no time throughout the entire Master Plan process (until now) has the property been publicly mentioned as a candidate site. The fact that this property has now suddenly appeared as a candidate site raises serious questions about what else district staff is not sharing with the board or the public.

    It’s time for SJUSD officials to listen to their constituents, end the shroud of secrecy and deception, and respond in a serious way to community appeals for transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. It’s time to heed the voluminous phone calls and emails to board members and staff, and the public comments that are delivered with regularity at board meetings and town halls.

    Concerned SJUSD families are invited to visit the website of a grassroots community action coalition called Save Neighborhood Schools to learn more about the SJUSD Master Plan. And on Sept. 23, residents throughout San Jose Unified, especially the River Glen, Second Start-Pine Hill and MetroED communities, are encouraged to attend the SJUSD Board Special Session speak out, and be heard.

    Tobin Gilman is a San Jose Unified resident, alumnus and parent of two district alumni.

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