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McAteer offers LPUSD a deal it can’t refuse?

June 20, 2014

Lone Pine school board members (l-r), LeRoy Kritz, Susan Patton, Catherine George and Cheryl Howerton expressed varying degrees of anger at the tone of a letter from the county Office of Education trustees. The letter offered facility improvement funding with a lot of strings. Photo by Deb Murphy

Half of the hurdles in the final resolution of the Blackrock 94 dispute have been cleared; the final once will be dealt with at Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power approved the resolution Tuesday, June 17; the California Environmental Quality Act documents have been prepared and attached to the existing Environmental Impact Report. The dispute resolution will be on the supervisors’ meeting agenda this coming Tuesday.
County Water Department Director Bob Harrington went over the Blackrock 94 resolution at the Water Commission meeting held June 18. While the dispute began in 2007 and has bounced from the Technical Group to the Standing Committee to an Arbitration Panel for the past five years, the final resolution was made under a tight deadline in late April without much time for public input. Harrington used the Water Commission meeting as an opportunity for additional community response.
Most of the audience comments or questions focused on the lack of review and input on the CEQA documents. “CEQA does not have the same public review and comment period process as EIRs,” Harrington explained. The documents dealt with the range burns outlined in the resolution and the impacts of the resolution on the Blackrock Hatchery, a mitigation project required in the 1991 EIR and on the Los Angeles water supply.
“There are proscriptions for range burns in the department’s management plans,” said Harrington. “Those proscriptions will be followed.”
According to the LADWP’s meeting agenda, there would be no significant environmental impacts from the resolution.
The impact of ground water pumping on vegetation at Blackrock 94, a 330 acre parcel in the Owens Valley between Big Pine and Independence, was first brought to the Inyo/Los Angeles Technical Group in July 2007. The wheels turned very slowly with the Tech Group agreeing to evaluate conditions in the parcel in mid-2009.
The county’s findings met all the criteria set out in the Long Term Water Agreement: the impacts were measurable, significant and attributable (to groundwater pumping). LADWP agreed with the measurability of the vegetation intervention in negotiations with the Sierra Sands school district regarding the division of funds generated by the Coso Geothermal operation; board training and coaching for a year; the appointment of former county Superintendent George Lozito as interim superintendent and his continuing role as mentor for the new Lo-Inyo principal for a year.
The biggest expenditure on the list of upgrades is $337,000 for the middle school science center renovation.
While the Lone Pine board agreed that the funds were needed and the district did face some issues, they and Superintendent Victor Hopper, who turned in his letter of resignation earlier this month to take the superintendent’s job in McLaren, did not agree with the letter’s inference that those issues had risen to crisis status.
No decision was made at the Wednesday meeting; that decision will be made at a 5 p.m. June 26 board meeting held in the district’s conference room.
“Stepping down for $400,000, I have no problem doing that,” said Kritz. But Kritz did question the legality of the Office of Education’s action, noting that there was “no mention of a discussion” of the Lone Pine district on recent county meeting agendas.
The letter alleges that Kritz “acted unilaterally,” the board micromanaged and describes meetings as contentious. “We’ve had a rocky couple of meetings recently,” said Trustee Susan Patton, “but to say we can’t do our job with out somebody looking over our shoulder” is uncalled for. According to Hopper in an interview following the meeting, the “rocky” meetings dealt with transferring teachers between schools to provide music classes at the high school, classes that few high school students indicated they wanted on a recent survey.
According to board members, McAteer had toured the Lone Pine campuses on June 10, two days before the letter was drafted. “All through the tour, he (McAteer) kept telling us ‘we can do this,’” said Trustee Susan Patton. Following that tour he had a conversation with Patton and Trustee Cheryl Howerton. “We were told Sierra Sands had hired an attorney” (regarding the Coso funds), said Patton, and that the district had contracted with a superintendent search firm without board approval. “What we were told is, ‘Let me help you,’” Patton said.
Hopper told the board he had called Sierra Sands and was told district administrators had no intention of hiring a lawyer to deal with negotiations. According to Hopper, the dispute focuses on the transition in school funding and different interpretations of the new Local Control Funding Formula. To date, there has been one meeting between the districts with another scheduled for this past week. “This is not a dispute,” Hopper told the board. “We’re just trying to figure it out.”
The letter outlines the negotiations as “contentious and headed in the wrong direction.”
Hopper went on to say that his office had called search firms in order to provide information for a future board decision. “We were doing our job,” he said.
In response to the allegation the district is in financial crisis, LPUSD Financial Officer Suzette Poirier explained that the district budget did include deficit spending beyond the coming school year. School budgets are required to include the current school year and project two years in advance. “Budgets are a work in progress,” Poirer said. With the fluctuation of the Coso operation’s appraised value which determines property tax funding to the Lone Pine and Sierra Sands schools, the budget cuts needed to balance the budget would be made when the total income becomes more certain. “The budget is a working tool,” she said. “We haven’t addressed the cuts yet.”
Patton also noted that the district had to hire a new teacher to maintain the required class size at the elementary school.
The board agreed an interim superintendent would be a good thing, but perhaps Lozito wasn’t the best choice. In addition, keeping Lozito on through the 2014-15 school year as new principal Heidi Torix’s mentor after a new superintendent was hired made little sense.
The reactions of the Lone Pine trustees varied from outrage to guarded conciliation. “Things about the letter were offensive,” said Howerton. “I would be in favor of accepting the offer but wish we could pick and choose.”
“I’m willing to hold my nose and do what’s best for the kids,” said Trustee Catherine George who has been on the board for 22 years. “If it made a difference if Leroy (Kritz) or both of us walk out the door, but we’re not there yet. I’m upset; I’m insulted for this district, this board and this community.”
The most impassioned response came from a member of the audience who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity. “Don’t go for this deal,” she said. “It’s appalling. You know your issues; he’s (McAteer) holding our kids hostage. It’s sad. He sees our kids need this and won’t help without strings because he doesn’t like our district.”
McAteer could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.

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