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Oversight committee questions TUSD over forfeited millions

The chairperson of a committee tasked with overseeing how Turlock Unified School District spends bond money is claiming that staff negligence cost the district more than $8 million in state matching funds.

Lacy Elliott, chair of TUSD’s Measures N and O citizens oversight committee, said during Thursday’s prickly, 90-minute meeting that not only has TUSD forfeited millions that could’ve been secured for the Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy modernization project, but the district is trying to camouflage its mistake by altering the minutes of N&O committee meetings.

“The bonds were used correctly,” said Elliott. “The bonds are a good thing, and I would vote for one again. But we could’ve gotten so much more.”

In addition to Elliott, committee members Steve Soderstrom, Bryan Tribble, and Patrick Bettencourt (via remote) were in attendance, while committee members David Folly and Harry Carlson were absent. Also in attendance was TUSD assistant superintendent of business services Barney Gordon, who was the target of much of the vitriol.

“Barney Gordon got a letter saying, ‘You didn’t do X, Y, and Z. If you did X, Y, and Z you would qualify for matched funds,’” said Elliott. “They (TUSD) have in our minutes that they were anticipating these matched funds and that there were projects they were going to use these funds for.”

Gordon calmly fielded all questions from the committee and the public except for a handful of occasions when he declined to respond, saying that the question was not in the committee’s purview. That was the reason he gave when addressing the subject of the altered minutes for Nov. 2 and Dec. 5 of last year.

The minutes from those meetings are posted on the district’s website, but they’re a stripped-down version of those submitted by the committee, documents show.

Elliott provided copies to the public. 

“The information provided during that meeting was beyond the scope of the bond oversight committee,” said Gordon, who, during the meeting, agreed to resubmit the original minutes at the committee’s request. “The purview of the bond oversight committee is to ensure that bond funds are spent correctly. The other information was not agendized; was not under the purview of the bond oversight committee. So, that’s why it wasn’t included.”

However, Gordon categorically denied that TUSD was trying to hide an embarrassing blunder.

“Absolutely not,” said Gordon, a former member of the TUSD school board. “We shared the minutes — the ones that we posted on our website — with the chairwoman at least a week ago. And we shared them with the full committee several days ago, within the guidelines of 72 hours (before a meeting). We didn’t get any feedback or response from them, one way or the other. So, the first we heard there were any issues was this evening.”

Seated in the audience Thursday was former TUSD facilities manager Martell Taylor, whose complaint against Gordon seems to be at the heart of the squabble.

In a statement that was included in the Nov. 2 minutes, Taylor alleged that an architectural error nearly cost the district state matching funds six years ago during renovations at Wakefield Elementary. 

Taylor said he worked behind the scenes to rectify that mistake with the California Department of Education — verified by an email exchange with the architect; it was attached to the original Nov. 2 minutes — and the matching funds were secured.

But when Taylor realized that the Osborn kindergarten project was being designed by the same firm — FF&J Architects, Inc. — that handled the Wakefield project in 2018, he alerted Gordon to potential pitfalls, according to his statement.

Despite Taylor’s warnings, the same mistake was made, resulting in the loss of about $8.4 million in CDE matching funds.

In a letter to the district dated Oct. 3, 2022, the CDE warned that the Osborn project was not in compliance with state codes.

At the Dec. 5 meeting, Fernando Ureno, assistant superintendent for human resources, was on hand to ask the committee to table their minutes from the November meeting, fearing that Taylor’s complaint had no place in the oversight committee’s minutes, according to the document.

Ureno did not return a message seeking comment.

TUSD shared with the Journal two letters from board of trustees president Anthony Silva to Elliott. One informed her that the Lozano Smith law firm “reported no major findings to the board” after a four-month deep-dive into the matter.

However, the letter does acknowledge that the window to apply for funding for the Osborn project — which may or may not have been granted — has closed. However, the opportunity to apply for funds in the future remains a possibility since “new construction eligibility is not site specific,” Silva said in the letter.

Local voters overwhelmingly passed Measures N and O in 2016, providing TUSD with nearly $90 million to address educational and facility needs. 

Measure N (elementary school funds) authorized the district to issue up to $40.8 million in bonds, with an estimated total debt service cost — principal and interest — of $83,918,823. Measure O (high school funds), meanwhile, authorized the issuance of up to $48 million in bonds, with an estimated total debt service cost of $98,725,047.

The TUSD board of trustees approved the Osborn project in 2021 and accepted a bid by JL Bray and Son, Inc. for a guaranteed maximum price of $14,120,914.