Tensions flared at the Mountain View Whisman School board meeting Thursday night over an otherwise uncontroversial contract approval -- the district's construction project manager threatened to walk out of the meeting because of some board members' questioning of cost figures.
After lengthy discussions over Measure G bond revenue spending plans earlier that night, board members Greg Coladonato and Steve Nelson challenged the dollar amounts projected for school site improvements; these projections are used to determine the fees the district will pay its project management firm, Greystone West.
Nelson argued that there was no board discussion or approval of the $22 million in initial cost estimates for the Stevenson and Theuerkauf improvements in the contract.
"Coladonato and I, I think, are trying to let you know that we don't approve putting a number on there," Nelson said. "There's a big political issue that is beyond this contract language, and it has to do with how we decide to do public policy and allocate money."
Todd Lee, principal at Greystone West, explained that he needs a cost estimate of construction so he knows how much the district will owe his firm, something that requires a specific dollar amount for construction at each site.
Coladonato said the process by which Lee came up with projected costs for the Theuerkauf and Stevenson projects is similar to that used for Castro Elementary site improvements; the Castro projection came in at $43 million. The board had no involvement in determining the budgets for those projects, Coladonato said, and he finds that process unacceptable.
At that point, Lee threatened to walk out the door, and Coladonato commented, "If you're willing to walk out the door for that, then that's too bad."
Lee headed for the door.
An agitated Interim Superintendent Kevin Skelly jumped in at that point, calling the scene "ridiculous." He made an appeal to Coladonato and Nelson to come to a compromise.
"There has to be some compromise with this group -- you're asking too much for staff. This man (Lee) is the best you'll get. Approve his contract; he's been working for nothing," Skelly said. "The man is working his butt off for us and he deserves a decent cut -- one that every district in the state does."
When Nelson tried to raise a point of order over Skelly's exasperated appeal to approve the contract, Skelly shouted, "Then fire me!"
Skelly's contract with the district ends June 30. He has a new job lined up as the superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District.
The board eventually voted unanimously to approve a contract where fees are determined by overall average values of the construction work, which excludes any specific dollar amount associated with Theuerkauf and Stevenson Elementary schools.
Board member Ellen Wheeler said she was not happy with the compromise, but that she's willing to vote for it so that Lee will be paid for his work.
Board member Bill Lambert said he was "baffled" by the discussion, and that the board isn't approving budgets for school sites by approving the contract. He said Lee needs an initial estimate to start any work on a site, which is why a number has been put down for all the schools, including Stevenson and Theuerkauf.
When asked what he thought of the newly structured fees for the contract, Lee opted not to opine one way or the other.
"At this point I'm tired, I'm angry and (it's) probably not a good time to be making a decision, so I'm sorry," Lee said.
Skelly later cautioned the board, saying that the district will lose a valuable asset in building and construction if it loses its relationship with Lee and Greystone West. He said picking away at little things will make people want to walk out of the room.
"If you lose this man, you are screwed. I feel very, very strongly that he has been the best thing that you have going for your construction program. You cannot control the prices of things, you will not always agree with his recommendations, but you will not find a finer person to do this work," Skelly said. "You are a difficult, difficult board."
In an email to the trustees following the board meeting, Lee explained that the $22 million figure for the Stevenson and Theuerkauf campus was a preliminary allocation of funds, and fixing their fee only occurs after a schematic design is approved by the board. And even those budget numbers are subject to adjustments without any penalty.
Up until the contract approval last week, Greystone West had been working for the district for months without compensation from the district. But Lee said in the email that the lapse in payment is not the source of frustration it's the fact that board members made the terms of the contract a political issue.
"We work very hard to avoid politics and produce accurate non-biased work product. Wednesday night's Board debate put us front and center, creating the appearance that somehow our cost estimates were designed to either promote a political agenda or, worse yet; to generate fees," the email states.
Coladonato later said he didn't realize Lee had been working for so long without being paid, and that he wasn't sure why that happened. He said he wasn't comfortable with setting any sort of budget for specific schools in the budget, including the absence of Slater or Whisman as potential school site construction, but didn't expect to see the reaction that he did.
Click here to see the relevant portion of the meeting.