The Emperor Has No Clothes
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The Emperor Has No Clothes
Years past, a Foster City citizen group was asked to come up with a solution for overcrowded schools in Foster City. They offered a solution which made it to the ballot box, where it was defeated by the good voters of San Mateo & Foster City. Despite failing, it was a responsible solution to a difficult problem. Build a school on land already owned by the San Mateo-Foster City School District and create inventory for future students. However, enough tribute and dollars were not offered to San Mateo & Foster City parents, so it failed to make the mark.
Years later, the next greatest idea is born, brainchild of then Board President Audrey Yu and Westlake Property Manager Sunny Tong. The School District will buy land and allow Westlake to build a school. Westlake had historically failed in its attempts to re-zone the Charter Square property for better use and grew tired of the City’s insistence that it remain a shopping center. Ironically, the often-touted Foster Master Plan actually never anticipated a shopping center at this location. In fact, it was designated as a housing site.
Fast forward, and today the following facts and realities have emerged. The School District is over budget by $6-million for the Foster City Elementary School at Charter Square. They are over budget by $10-million in combined San Mateo-Foster City school improvement projects as promised to voters. They have created an additional $3-million in salary liability yearly for recently compensated employees. Finally, they have $7-million less per year because of a poorly planned/executed campaign to extend a school parcel tax. All of this even though roughly 45% of the average resident property tax bill already goes to schools.
The hard fact is the School District is $30-million short in best-case scenario and $40-million in worst-case. They don’t have funds to build the promised school and/or other projects. They have underestimated the cost of building. They don’t seem to have in-house expertise to manage projects nor have hired appropriate staff to do so. Perhaps more importantly, the past Board was either oblivious to these facts, unwilling to accept them, or unable to understand them.
I’ve had the good fortune of participating in many levels of budget development, oversight, and implementation. As a young athlete, I created a budget for competition and was reliant on many sources for income. In many cases, donors promised donations or said they were forthcoming. Athletes quickly learned that promised money doesn’t pay bills or provide plane tickets to competitions.
In the production arena and in acting on a television show, we would often move forward with a new project in spite of payment yet to be received but thought to be forthcoming. In that industry, the saying goes “Act as if”. It means to continue and act as if payment is coming because to do less would stall or end a time-sensitive project.
Finally, as Board member of a non-profit with a $400-million budget, we used best practices. We could not rely on payments promised and could not “act as if”. We created budgets with funding certainty and never invested in projects that could not. We didn’t because the hopes and dreams of young athletes depended on our diligence. We didn’t because the public trust would accept no less.
The past San Mateo-Foster City School Board did not operate with best practices like non-profit boards. It has created a severe deficit that cannot be overcome without realignment of its scope of promised projects or new funding source. Despite these facts, the Board continues to “act as if” funds are forthcoming or a new parcel tax on a future ballot will pass and save the day.

All said, a solution exists that can responsibly meet the expectations of our residents and implicit promises previously made.
1. The School Board can move the proposed Foster City Elementary School to land it owns adjacent to Bowditch Middle School.
2. Doing so, the School District saves $30-million in land cost/acquisition.
3. The School District and Westlake can work together to create teacher housing at Charter Square.
4. The City, School District, and Westlake can work together to create a new plan/land use for Charter Square, which would include teacher housing as one component.

Regardless of the Charter Square discussion, the School District must move on and act responsibly. Past Board and sole remaining member Ms. Yu must lose their pride of authorship and accept the reality of cost overruns, bad design, bad land cost, and poor leadership. They must meet obligations that the Bond measure was founded on. They must find a responsible, fiscally sound, and financially feasible way to build another school in Foster City. That school need not be built on the Charter Square site. It simply need be built in Foster City.

Council Corner

January 24, 2018
The Emperor Has No Clothes

City Hall - 610 Foster City Blvd.
Foster City, CA 94404
(650) 286-3200