In Our Backyard: School Board See Cuts

Pleasanton school board braces for more cuts at meeting tonight, including adult ed cuts
Facing possible $5.4 million in funding losses, district likely to cancel Barton, other programs

Glenn Wohltmann, Pleasanton Weekly, February 28, 2012, link

The Pleasanton school board plans to spend an hour tonight reviewing a list of potential cuts that include eliminating the Barton Reading Program, cutting reading support at elementary schools and reducing counseling services at all grade levels.

The list of cuts is identical to the one in use for the last few months, although two board members, Valerie Arkin and Jamie Hintzke, had asked staff to look into other cuts in the hope of saving the Barton program.

The cut list also includes eliminating adult education and summer school programs as well as eliminating the director of those programs, Glen Sparks, and ending support for home schooling. It would also cut program specialists and a psychologist.

The list also includes cutting back on custodians at middle and high schools and the district office, as well as cutting grounds services and maintenance services. All the cuts are reductions of fulltime employees (FTEs) and may not actually eliminate jobs, with the possible exception of Sparks.

Car allowances for management would be cut or reduced as well.

The total savings would be just over $2.2 million.

Those cuts are in addition to the cuts proposed for this year that were later restored through fundraising, concessions from the district’s two unions and dipping into district reserves.

Those cuts included, among others, eliminating an elementary school band and strings teacher, cuts to site technology specialists and library assistants at middle and elementary schools, cutting counseling services at middle and high schools, and eliminating class size reductions in grades kindergarten through three.

Restoring those cuts would total more than $3.1 million, and the two cuts lists total more than $5.3 million altogether.

Luz Cazares, assistant superintendent of business services, has been planning for two scenarios, describing them as bad and worse.

In one, if a tax increase plan set for November passes, some of the cuts could be eliminated halfway through the year, although it would still eliminate funding for transportation.

The other, if the tax hike fails, could mean cuts of $5.4 million to the district.

Cazares has said she must plan for the worst-case scenario and notes the state budget contains “risky assumptions.” Given that, the district is preparing layoff notices for some employees.

The board is also set to finalize its policy allowing drug detection dogs onto high school campuses. If approved, that could potentially send dogs to high schools the next day.

In Our Backyard: Local Realtors Look Out for Your Wallet

Realtors want limits placed on retrofit requirements
Proposed legislation would put brakes on programs state can impose on home buyers

Jeb Bing, Pleasanton Weekly Staff, February 24, 2012, link

In a continuing effort to reduce consumers’ costs associated with purchasing a home, the California Association of Realtors is sponsoring Assembly Bill 1711, which will clearly define what constitutes an energy efficiency retrofit that would “unreasonably or unnecessarily” affect a home purchase.

Recently enacted legislation requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to pursue energy conservation in a way that does not “unreasonably or unnecessarily” affect the real estate sales process.

However, the NAR says, the lack of a clear definition of “unreasonably or unnecessarily” fails to provide sensible limits on the programs that can be imposed on home buyers by the CEC.

The CEC is currently evaluating implementation strategies focusing on programs requiring installation of energy saving improvements at the time a home is purchased. Such programs, for example, can require home purchasers to pay for improvements that will never pay for themselves over the lifetime of the improvement. Additionally, the CEC is considering requirements that could add thousands of dollars to the up-front cost of a home.

According to the CAR, Assembly Bill 1711 (Galgiani, D-Tracy) will prohibit the state from creating a program that requires home buyers to pay out of pocket for energy improvements at the time a home is purchased or that would prevent a home buyer from closing escrow on time. The measure also requires that the costs of mandated improvements be recoverable over the lifetime of the improvement.

Keeping it Local: Becoming One Never Sounded So Good!

The case for buying a home now

Mary Umberger, Chicago Tribune, February 5, 2012, link

SoldAccording to housing bear Christopher Thornberg, the “wild up-and-down” in real estate is over, and markets should begin a gradual turnaround soon. (Comstock Images)

A notorious housing market bear has changed his tune. Yes, he says, now is a good time to buy a home, if …

It’s a pretty important “if.” Still, people noticed when Christopher Thornberg — an economist who built a reputation for being a relatively lonely and boisterously outspoken housing doomsayer in the middle of the last decade, while Americans were buying homes as fast as they could — recently began to suggest that the overall market had settled and conditions are much improved for buying.

Thornberg, a founding principal of Beacon Economics, an independent research firm in Los Angeles, and former senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast, talked about the differences between then and now:

Q: Is it safe to presume that you made no friends in the housing industry when you started publicly warning that the bubble was bursting?

A: Yes, I’m persona non grata. Local (housing-industry) groups will interact with me, but the national groups, no way. In 2004 and 2005, I was screaming that there was a real estate bubble, and everyplace I went, other economists would pooh-pooh me.

When the National Association of Realtors was spending lots of money in 2007 advertising to consumers that it was both a good time to buy and sell a house, I continually pointed out the stupidity of thinking — and promoting — the idea that housing is a great investment. It’s not. We as a nation need to come to the functional realization that housing is a consumption good — the lower the price of housing, the better off we are as a nation. Cheap housing is good.

Q: Why weren’t more economists vocal at that time that the market was getting overheated?

A: Ninety percent of all economists are guys who sit in academic offices writing on obscure issues that are unimportant, that three other people will read, so that they’ll get tenure. The majority of economists aren’t attached to the real world.

But most private-sector economists are attached to the financial industry, they work for housing agencies and the industry. They have a conflict of interest.

I’d like to say I was the smartest guy out there, but there were other economists shouting “Bubble!” — though they were in the minority. But the guys who look at the economy on an independent basis, for the most part, they got it.

Economists are taught that markets are efficient, and from that perspective, bubbles can’t happen. When you’re sitting there in the midst of the real estate market going up, up, up, it’s easy to say, if this is a bubble, it would have blown up already. A guy walked up to me in 2006, when prices were still climbing, and said, you ruined my life — because I listened to you, I didn’t invest in property, and look at all the money I could have made.

Q: Did you hear from him again, when housing prices kept falling for years after that?

A: No.

Q: Do you believe the market has bottomed, from a nationwide perspective?

A: Absolutely. That’s been going on for a while now. You can argue, is this (bottoming) just in certain markets? But when all is said and done, the wild up-and-down is done.

But housing markets don’t bounce, they splat. They hit bottom and they stay on the bottom. We have to get rid of excess supply of units and get rid of foreclosures, and home equity has to start building. That’s when the market starts to recover.

So, we’re still in the splat phase. This should be the year that things start to perk up a little. We’ve burned up excess supply, foreclosures are starting to decline, income is starting to rise, jobs are starting to rise. Housing should start to turn the corner this year — but there won’t be anything frenetic, and there will only be a slow increase in prices.

Q: Do you think conditions now are right for buying?

A: A couple of years ago, I was saying that we were still in the bubble, don’t buy. But now I’ve been saying, if you need a house — if you recognize that a house is a consumption good and not an investment opportunity, you should consider buying. With interest rates continuing to come down and with prices that have sagged, in some markets — particularly Florida, Arizona and Nevada — affordability is at record levels. But it has to be a long-term hold — you have to be in long term.

Q: Where do you see interest rates going?

A: Treasurys will start to goose up this year, as fears of Europe start to fade away, and that will start to push mortgage rates up, but I don’t see them going to 8 percent or anything.

Keeping it Local: BART Changes in the Area

BART unveils new geographical zone policing structure
New system breaks current zones down into smaller areas that police say will be easier to manage.

Pleasanton Weekly, February 15, 2012, link

BART police officials Tuesday unveiled a new zone geographical structure that they believe will spark proactive problem-solving to reduce crime and social disorder.

Speaking at a news conference at police headquarters at the Lake Merritt BART station, Police Chief Kenton Rainey said creating the new
structure is one of the recommendations that the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives made following the fatal shooting of unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III at the hands of BART Officer Johannes Mehserle three years ago.

“We’re very excited about the direction we’re going in and believe it will result in more accountability for our officers,” Rainey said.

Grant was fatally shot on the platform of the Fruitvale Station in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009, by Mehserle, who claimed that he had meant to use a
Taser on Grant instead of his service gun. Mehserle was later convicted of
involuntary manslaughter for the shooting.

Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow said the new structure breaks the current zones down into smaller areas that are easier to manage.

Fairow said the department used to have four patrol zones but it will now have five zones.

He said each zone will have a lieutenant supervising a team of patrol sergeants, police officers and community service officers who will be responsible and accountable for providing service to their areas at all times.

Fairow said BART police will use an enhanced form of community policing they call Community Oriented Policing Problem Solving, or COPPS.

He said it is a policing philosophy and management approach that promotes community, government, police partnerships and proactive
problem-solving.

The idea, Fairow said, is to create positive, productive relationships between the transit agency’s police officers and its riders in order to make riders feel safer and promote greater job satisfaction for officers.

Rainey said he thinks “passengers will feel safer” because more police officers will be in BART’s trains and stations.

Farrow said the new zones are: Zone I, which includes all Oakland Stations, Zone II, which includes all stations in Contra Costa County and
Berkeley, Zone III, which consists of all other stations in Alameda County, which includes the area from San Leandro to Dublin/Pleasanton, Zone IV, which consists of all San Francisco stations, and Zone V, which includes the stations in San Mateo County.

Keeping it Local: School District Struggling

School district could cut 30 jobs starting July 1 as state aid lags / Some positions could be restored if November tax measure passes

Glenn Wohltmann, Pleasanton Weekly, February 6, 2012, link

Looking at bad and worse figures from the state, Pleasanton school officials have released numbers that could mean cuts of nearly 30 full-time jobs for the next school year budget that takes effect July 1.

The more severe cuts would come if Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for a tax increase on the November ballot fails. In that scenario, nearly $5.5 million would have to be cut from the 2012-13 school year budget, and school officials are gearing up now to make those cuts.

“Due to statutory timelines for layoffs, we are unable to wait until November and hope that the governor’s tax initiative passes,” Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi states in a Guest Opinion this week (page 8) in the Pleasanton Weekly. “We must base our budget on facts and not hope.”

A tentative plan from the district would eliminate funding for the Barton Reading Program, axe adult education and summer school, along with its director and classified staff, drop three full-time counselor positions from middle schools, another three at high schools and one-and-a-half at elementary schools, plus eight-and-a-half elementary fulltime reading specialist positions.

The full-time positions cited are not necessarily full-time jobs held by one person; in many cases, employees are part-time workers or split their schedules at different locations.

The plan would also cut one full-time psychologist position and one program specialist position and eliminate support for home schooling for kindergarten through eighth grade. Two full-time custodian positions at high schools and a one-and-a-half time middle school custodian position would be cut, along with a half-time custodian position at district offices. A full-time equivalent maintenance position would also be cut, as would car allowances for managers; management would see its work year cut by five days.

Should voters approve a tax increase, many of those worst-case cuts could be restored sometime after November. The director of adult education and summer school could be brought back, as could classified support for those programs. Elementary school counseling could be restored midyear, bringing it to the same as this year; even with the tax increase, middle school counseling would see one-and-a-half fulltime positions cut and high school counseling would be cut by one fulltime position.

If the tax increase is approved, elementary reading support specialists would be still cut by four-and-a-half fulltime positions and the teachers assigned to the Barton Reading Program would be cut by half to one half-time position. Psychologists and program specialist positions would remain the same, as would the one-and-a-half-time position for home schooling support. Custodial positions could be restored to their 2011-12 schedules.

More apartments for the Pleasanton area…

Pleasanton Council OKs plan to allow another 2,200 high-density housing units here;
Action meets court order to bring more mixed-use rentals to Pleasanton for moderate-to-lower income tenants

Jeb Bing, Pleasanton Weekly, January 6, 2012, link

Facing a packed meeting room but with almost no objections, the Pleasanton City Council approved a final plan Wednesday night that will allow 73 acres in various parts of the city to be rezoned for high density housing.

The two- and three-story apartment complexes would provide “affordable” housing on 11 separate building sites scattered around the city.

The council will ratify its vote, as required by law, at a second reading of the new housing ordinance at a special meeting at 7 p.m. next Tuesday in its Civic Center council chambers. The public will then have 30 days to file any legal objections before the final document becomes part of the city’s General Plan and is filed with both the Alameda Superior Court, which ordered the added housing in Pleasanton, and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) which concurred.

The actions by both the City Council Wednesday and the city’s Planning Commission earlier followed the court’s ruling that declared the city’s 1996 housing cap of allowing no more than 29,000 homes and apartments here to be illegal.

When the additional affordable housing units are built, along with some 650-800 units already approved in the Hacienda Business Park, the total number of homes and apartments in Pleasanton will add up to about the 29,000-unit maximum that voters in 1996 wanted. Another wave of new housing requirements expected to be imposed by the state in 2014, however, will force Pleasanton to allow far more than 29,000 units.

Wednesday’s action also marked a turning point in the city’s long politically-motivated policy of slow growth that has been in place since the election of Mayor Ben Tarver in 1982. Mayor Tarver, who died Jan. 4, 2010, was Pleasanton’s first “slow growth” mayor, actively supporting measures to slow down new home construction and an outspoken advocate of saving open space and the Pleasanton hills from business and residential development.

As mayor, he championed the 1996 housing cap ordinance that was approved by more than 80% of Pleasanton voters. He was succeeded in office by Tom Pico, and then by the city’s current Mayor Jennifer Hosterman, both of whom also supported the housing cap at the time it was approved by voters.

Forced by a court order and state housing authorities to drop the cap and to now vote for a pro-growth rezoning measure, Hosterman and the other council members find themselves in charge as Pleasanton re-opens the housing growth tap. With a population based on the 2010 Census of just under 70,000, adding another 3,000 housing units, which the council has now approved and with most of the units likely to have at least two-bedrooms, could bring another 9,000 residents to Pleasanton based on an estimated three-people for each new rental unit.

Council members, recognizing the overall population increase their action will mean, expressed concern over its impact on schools.

At one time, the Pleasanton school district planned to build a 10th elementary school on a 13-acre site it owns on Vineyard Avenue to serve Ruby Hill and newer home developments in the vicinity. That plan was dropped for lack of funds. However, among the 9,000 new residents projected to fill the new affordable housing projects are expected to be a large percentage of younger couples with school-age children, and council members noted that more elementary schools may be needed.

“A lot of these new units will be occupied by younger families, so we need to understand the possibly dire needs our school district will face (by this rezoning action),” said Councilwoman Cheryl Cook-Kallio. “We need to work with the district to identify the sites where those needs will be,”

Councilwoman Cindy McGovern agreed, asking city staff to make sure guidelines are in place to provide space for news schools and to make sure room for playgrounds are part of the high density housing complexes to serve the children who will live there.

“The number one reason people move here is for our excellent schools, and we don’t want to lose that,” McGovern said.

City Manager Nelson Fialho said that while he and others on the city staff will work with the school district in analyzing the impact, the city and school district are separate governing agencies with no authority to co-mingle funds. He also pointed out that the court-ordered additional housing gave the city design review authority, but stipulated that few other requirements, such as special school construction fees, could be imposed.

Even though the council chambers were filled for Wednesday night’s council meeting, only 10 spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, and only one objected to the plan. That was Pat Costanzo, who represented the Kiewit-owned acreage northeast of the Valley Avenue-Stanley Boulevard intersection. Kiewit had asked to be included as a site for rezoning to allow high density housing, but was excluded pending the city’s study of an East Site Specific Plan.

Other speakers said they would have liked to see changes in either the location of some of the sites or the numbers of housing units those sites could accommodate, but otherwise applauded the council’s final considerations.

“Collectively, this is a very comprehensive piece of work,” said Scott Raty, president of the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce. “Let’s now move forward by preparing and adopting a specific plan for the east side so that we’ll never be in the position again where we’re forced to make housing decisions by the state or its (Department of Housing and Community Development).”

It’s been more than year, since October 2010, that Pleasanton officials have been addressing the city’s share of the region’s housing needs, which both the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the HCD have long said was inadequate.

In fact, critics addressed the city’s lack of so-called workforce housing shortly after the 1996 housing cap was approved. The HCD insisted that the city rezone more land to accommodate the city’s need for affordable housing nearly a decade ago, and eventually reversed its approval of the city’s housing element plan because the city failed to meet those requirements. A local affordable housing group, Citizens for a Caring Community, has repeatedly asked the council to provide more housing for those who can’t afford the cost of most homes and apartments here.

One of its members, former Councilwoman Becky Dennis, told the council Wednesday that the city should raise its requirement for affordable units from 15% to at least 20% for each new development so as to reduce the need for more housing requirements by the state.

In a letter to the HCD, Dennis and Pat Belding, the Caring Community organization’s chairwoman, urged the state agency to raise the city’s requirement for housing units for the very-low income group much higher.

Citing the city’s zoning approval for an affordable housing complex in Hacienda Business Park, the organization’s letter stated: “Zoning for an additional 305 (very low income) units should be added back for a total unmet need of 844 VLO residential units.”

Still, Urban Habitat, an Oakland-based affordable housing coalition that successfully pursued a suit again Pleasanton over both its housing cap and unmet affordable housing needs, and the HCD appear to be satisfied with Wednesday’s council actions. It’s likely that after next Tuesday’s ratification and the 30-day waiting period for legal objections, that city staff can proceed with the actual rezoning actions.

Although the city, itself, will not build any housing, the rezoning will enable developers to have an easier time in obtaining permits for multi-family, two- and three-story developments on the properties.

In the council’s latest action, the sites will be rezoned to accommodate 1,884 apartment units at a ratio of 30 units per acre, with 400 more at 40 units per acre. Most apartment structures in Pleasanton are in the range of 20-25 units per acre.

SF to LA rail sees setback…

Halt state funding for high-speed rail; Peer-review group finds flaws in business plan for high-speed rail, urges Legislators not to use bond funds for project

Gennady Sheyner, Pleasanton Weekly, Palo Alto Online Staff, January 4, 2012, link

California’s quest to build a high-speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles suffered a heavy blow Tuesday when a peer-review committee recommended that state legislators not fund the project until major changes are made to the business plan for the increasingly controversial line.

In a scathing report, the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group found that the business plan the California High-Speed Rail Authority unveiled in early November offers inadequate information about funding, fails to answer the critical question of which operating segment will be built first and features a phased-construction plan that would violate state law. The group, which is chaired by Will Kempton, recommends that the state Legislature not authorize expenditure of bond money for the project until its concerns are met.

The report deals the latest of several recent setbacks to the project, for which state voters approved a $9.95 billion bond in 2008. Since then, the project’s price tag more than doubled and several agencies, including the Legislative Analyst’s Office and Office of the State Auditor, released critical reports about the project.

High-speed rail has become particularly controversial on the Peninsula, where several grassroots groups have sprung up in the last two years to oppose it. Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto had filed a lawsuit challenging the rail authority’s environmental analysis and the Palo Alto City Council last month adopted as the city’s official position a call for the project’s termination.

In its letter to the Legislature, the peer review group highlighted some of the same flaws that local officials and watchdogs have long complained about, most notably a deeply flawed funding plan. The project currently has about $6 billion in committed funding and the rail authority plans to make up much of the balance from federal grants and private investments — investments that would be solicited after the first major segment of the line is constructed. The peer-review group found this plan to be vague and insufficient.

“The fact that the Funding Plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program,” the report states. “Without committed funds, a mega-project of this nature could be forced to halt construction for many years before additional funding could be obtained. The benefits of any independent utility proposed by the current Business Plan would be very limited versus the cost and the impact on state finances.”

The group also faulted the rail authority’s business plan for failing to choose the “initial operating segment” for the rail line. Though the authority has decided to build the first leg of the line in Central Valley, this segment would not be electrified and would serve largely as a corridor for testing the new line. The first “true” high-speed rail segment would be built later and would stretch either north toward San Jose or south toward San Fernando Valley.

Though the peer-review group acknowledged that a phased approach is the only feasible way to build the system, it also found that this plan violates a requirement of Proposition 1A, which mandates that the rail authority identify funding for the first usable segment of the line before construction begins. The Central Valley segment, the peer report notes, “is not a very high-speed railway (VHSR), as it lacks electrification, a CHSR train control system, and a VHSR compatible communication system. Therefore, it does not appear to meet the requirements of the enabling State legislation.”

The peer review group also wrote in its letter that the authority should have determined in its business plan whether the first “operating segment” would go north or south from the Central Valley. Its letter states that “it is hard to seriously consider a multi-billion dollar Funding Plan that offers no position on which IOS should be initiated first.”

“This indecision may also have consequences in obtaining environmental clearances. We believe that the Funding Plan as proposed should not be approved until the first IOS is selected.”

The report reserves “final judgment” on the funding plan because the rail authority’s business plan is still in draft form and subject to revisions. But it also makes clear that major changes would have to be made before the project warrants state funding. The letter notes that while legislators could potentially come up with a funding source for the project, without such a source “the project as it is currently planned is not financially ‘feasible.'”

“Therefore, pending review of the final Business Plan and absent a clearer picture of where future funding is going to come from, the Peer Review Group cannot at this time recommend that the Legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds for this project,” the peer group’s letter concludes.

The new report presents a potentially devastating blow to the rail authority, which is banking on getting $2.7 billion in Proposition 1A funds for construction of the Central Valley segment. The agency has also received $3.5 billion in federal grants.

The state funds are particularly critical given the lack of private investment and increasing local opposition. The authority had acknowledged that private investment would not start coming in until later phases. Future federal funding is also deeply uncertain at a time when many Republicans in the House of Representatives are vehemently opposing the project.

The rail authority responded to the report by disputing many of its findings and by claiming that it “suffers from a lack of appreciation of how high-speed rail systems have been constructed throughout the world.” The authority also said in a statement that the peer-review group’s report “makes unrealistic and unsubstantiated assumptions about private sector involvement in such systems and ignores or misconstrues the legal requirements that govern the construction of the high speed rail program in California.”

Roelof van Ark, CEO of the rail authority, said in a statement that the recommendation of the committee “simply do not reflect a real world view of what it takes to bring such projects to fruition.”

“It is unfortunate that the Peer Review Committee has delivered a report to the Legislature that is deeply flawed in its understanding of the Authority’s program and the experience around the world in successfully developing high speed rail,” van Ark said.

Rail authority officials also argued that the peer-review group’s report could jeopardize federal funding for the project. Thomas Umberg, chair of the authority’s board of directors, said the board takes seriously “legitimate critiques” of the rail program, including recommendations that the authority hire more staff.

“However, what is most unfortunate about this Report is not its analytical deficiency, but that it would create a cloud over the program that threatens not only federal support but also the confidence of the private sector necessary for them to invest their dollars,” Umberg said in a statement.

The authority’s Chief Counsel Thomas Fellenz called the committee’s findings about the project’s inconsistency with Proposition 1A “unfounded assumptions.” The group’s legal conclusions, he said in a statement, are not only “beyond the expertise of the authors, but attorneys at the state and federal government level and the legislative author of the bond measure, profoundly disagree.”

The authority also submitted an eight-page letter to state Legislators responding to the peer-review group’s criticisms. The authority disputed in its letter the peer-review group’s finding that the “initial construction segment” in Central Valley would violate Proposition 1A and argued that the group’s demand for a long-term funding plan fails to consider how major transportation projects are normally built.

“By this measure, none of the unconstrained regional transportation plans of any transportation authority should be pursued,” the letter from Umberg states. “No project, in our experience, has fully identified funding sources for the entire project at this stage and it is both unfortunate and inappropriate for the Committee to apply this test only to high speed rail.”