MARTINEZ -- Tempers flared during public comment at the jam-packed Martinez Unified School District board meeting, as teachers there to lobby for better wages were forbidden to speak because wage negotiations were on the agenda for a closed session, held just prior to the public meeting.

Board president John Fuller said they could have commented before the closed session. Resigned to the ruling, but claiming it was not past practice, most of the teachers angrily left the room during a five-minute cooling-off break declared by Fuller.

Also at the May 9 meeting, parents wanted to know why more than 60 percent of the 2010 Measure K bond funds have been spent, while health and safety problems at three 50-year-old elementary schools remain neglected.

John Swett Elementary School parent Julie Betti said she had been trying since February to find out what the board was going to do about improving conditions there.

"It has reached a level where it is eroding the trust between the parents and the board," she said.

She was asked to hold her comments until after the Measure K Oversight Committee report.

The original bond of $45 million was to be spent in two phases, with $25 million allocated for the first phase. The list of projects changed, and those first cost commitments exceeded estimates. Now, there is about $15 million-$17 million left for phase two, according to Fuller.

That amount is less than half of what the board says it needs to complete the changing list of projects. Based on board member comments, another bond issue may be their only solution to completing the Measure K goals.

Betti said John Swett (500 students) and Las Juntas Elementary (about 450 students) have needs, not wants. She asked for equity among all of the students in the district.

"We need a facility standard for all of our schools, including our old ones. We want to know why the Measure K lists change. Where is the written protocol for these important assessment processes?"

John Swett is the only school in the district without air conditioning or a "cool roof." Parents complained of water damage, electrical issues and "horrible traffic congestion."

Superintendent Rami Muth said that a $12,800 traffic study was authorized (that night) for John Swett and John Muir, but acknowledged that the John Muir situation less serious.

"It is an accident waiting to happen ... there are 5-year-olds walking two blocks through traffic to get to school," John Swett parent and Martinez City Councilwoman AnaMarie Avila Farias said.

Heat seemed to be the biggest issue.

"This week my son was at school and it was 86 degrees. There is one fan in the classroom ... He came out with a purple face," one mother recalled.

Another said her daughter was too hot and tired to go to a scheduled after-school dance lesson.

A teacher noted that some children were sent home with heat-stress symptoms and teachers avoided summer school assignments there because of the lack of cooling (other than in the computer room).

Former board member Vicki Gordon said, "A 90-degree classroom is not a healthy learning environment ... This isn't character-building. It's wrong."

That evening, $25,000 was approved for an architect-designed, long-range facilities improvement plan for Alhambra High School (1,175 students) and $20,000 for parking lot security cameras there.

Meanwhile, John Swett is not fully fenced and lacks a frontage gate. There is a also a "blind element" in the John Muir security system.

"This is not a high school district. This is a K-12 district. What is the security plan for John Swett?" a parent asked.

Gordon questioned the process and priorities, urging the board to work to find solutions.

"These decisions are being made without guidelines. If you put your energy into this today, you may get another bond. If you don't, they won't trust you."

Fuller, and board member Denise Elsken defended board delays and decisions on grounds that initial expenditures were on a "piecemeal" basis, followed by a decision to review an overall plan and revise the project list.

"When we started, we didn't know we would have that school safety to worry about," Elsken explained.

She noted that past state grant levels were higher than now, implying it could have had a bearing on past Measure K decisions.

Although Elsken believes the older schools are structurally sound, Fuller told Betti to organize for another bond issue if she wanted John Swett rebuilt. Later, Fuller said that he was not aware of serious complaints from John Swett parents until the past two months.

Board members acknowledged that they initially knew there was not enough money in Measure K funds to rebuild schools. Yet, in a 3-2 vote, a rebuild at Vicente-Martinez High School and Briones School campus (about 165 students) was authorized, despite its proximity to a major gas line.

The board agreed to review the Measure K projects list, considering all of the district needs, and according to Fuller, provide a clearer vision of priorities by its June 16 meeting.

A number of district schools have had superficial improvements in conjunction with solar power installations, which are unrelated to the Measure K spending. The solar improvements will reportedly pay for themselves in energy savings over a 15- to 20-year period, and add cash to the general fund in the interim.

Contact Dana Guzzetti at dguzzetti10@gmail.com or call 925-202-9292.

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