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Op–Ed: OUSD Trustee Ruf comments on development proposal for district offices

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Trustee Kevin Ruf

 

I am in my seventh year as an OUSD school board member. It’s very important for me to make clear that my comments are individual to me. Like any other individual board member, I do not speak for the Ojai Unified School District or for the board as a whole.

I want to first state how gratified I am that the community is increasingly (and intensely) engaging the proposed development of the downtown district office property (known as the “DO”).

It is not an exaggeration to say that this nearly 9-acre school property represents the figurative and literal “heart of Ojai.” I have always been skeptical that this property should be developed at all. I believe that Ojai is a unique place and that the funky, multi-use DO is a reflection of that uniqueness. In an age of newer, sleeker, faster, the DO could represent the environmental ethos of loving and maximizing the use of what you already have.

Currently, the property contains a beautiful auditorium, Chaparral High School,  A Place to Grow preschool,district offices, the school board meeting room,maintenance buildings, the bus and transportation depot — and a skate park.The bucolic, tree-lined inner courtyard is now the site of a weekly farmers' market.

I have wanted to allow the formal process to play out before committing to a vote on the proposed development. After hearing from the community, the various presentations, combined with my own values, I have concluded that my vote is “no.”

My wife, Asli, is a full-time volunteer for our public schools, serving Parent Teacher organizations, athletic teams, the music programs and the wonderful Ojai Education Foundation.Along with serving on the school board, I am the Mock Trial coach at Nordhoff High School.Asli and I are “all in” for OUSD and public schools.Our children have only attended Ojai’s public schools and they have all thrived.I have personal friendships with many OUSD teachers and administrators.

I believe it should go without saying that opposing the development of the DO does not remotely amount toan “attack” on OUSD or its students.Full stop.

In a recent FAQ issued by the school district (which states, accurately, that it does not reflect the views of all board members), there is a discussion about the school board voting just two months ago to offer family health benefits for all school board members (regardless of whether they already have insurance from another source) starting after the election in 2022. The cost, if all board members chose to take these benefits, appears to be close to $100,000 per year.

I have strongly opposed board benefits since I was elected.My vote in favor of these benefits was the result of a compromise I proposed so that the benefits would not kick in until after the next election.I hope that the new board members will change this policy.During our board meeting on Sept. 8 on this subject (which was agendized as “Review of Board bylaw 9250,” thus giving the public no clear indication that the proposal was to create new board benefits), the argument was made that these benefits would increase “equity.”I don’t understand how equity is served by a policy that allows someone who already has benefits from another source to “double down” and also take benefits from OUSD. I recognize that I lost this battle and that the majority of the board supports the new policy.

If nothing else, however, the “board benefits issue” demonstrates that the district is constantly making choices that have a direct impact on the money available for other uses. The FAQ points out that board benefits only amount to .3% of our annual budget. I want to make a similar point now.

The current OUSD 2021-22 budget we adopted in July is $31,809,823 (total incoming revenue). Even if one were to ignore the substantial cost of moving all of the district’s many operations from the DO to other sites (this will cost millions of dollars), and even if one were to double the minimum rent proposed in the Exclusive Right to Negotiate with the developer ($240,000), the district would get $480,000 per year. That represents 1.4% of our current budget.I simply do not think it is logical or reasonable to believe that turning the DO over to a developer under a 99-year lease will be a panacea for the long-standing Ojai teacher pay deficit.

The Ojai community has been extremely supportive of OUSD. In 2014, the Ojai community supported OUSD with $35 million in new infrastructure money (Measure J). In 2020, I was convinced the COVID crisis would undermine any additional infrastructure support from the community. I was floored — and immeasurably grateful — that the Ojai community stepped up again, this time with an additional $45 million (Measure K).Thus, the community has committed $80 million to OUSD in the span of six years.

I agree Ojai’s teachers deserve to be compensated commensurate with their colleagues in this county.  Now that the generous Ojai community is energized on this topic, I believe we, together, can find ways to improve our teacher pay.

 

–– Kevin Ruf lives in Ojai and serves on the Ojai Unified School District Board of Education. Two of his children are in OUSD schools and his oldest is a Nordhoff High School graduate, currently attending university.

 

Editor's note: The Ojai Valley News artice on the Nov. 17 Ojai Planning Commission meeting, where the district office development plans were discussed, can be viewed here: https://ojaivalleynews.com/?view=article&id=21140:ousd-development-plan-gets-cool-reception-at-packed-meeting&catid=856

The OUSD FAQ and history can be viewed here: https://ojaivalleynews.com/?view=article&id=21142:ousd-responds-to-ojai-town-square-development-project&catid=856

 

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