Contruction Company TELACU a Kingmaker in Centinela Valley School District

Article excerpt

For a couple of moms from working-class families hoping to retain their seats on the Centinela Valley school board, it was a stark lesson in machine politics.

In a small room at the Proud Bird restaurant near LAX, a group of maybe 15 had gathered to support board members Sandra Suarez and Gloria Ramos. Nearly everyone sharing finger foods that day was connected to a community development corporation called TELACU, which bills itself as the fifth largest Latino-owned business in California.

There were architects, lawyers, consultants. And high-powered figures from TELACU itself, including President and CEO David Lizarraga, who at the time was chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and has since been appointed by President Barack Obama to a key administrative post in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. John Clem, the TELACU executive who heads up all the construction projects in the Centinela district, was there as well. So were the wives of both men.

All for two women in a tiny district that oversees just three comprehensive high schools in Lawndale and Hawthorne.

Everyone in attendance wrote out two checks for $99 - the highest amount that can go unreported in campaign filings - one for Suarez, one for Ramos. The experience left Suarez a little bewildered.

"It was kind of odd," Suarez said. "They were giving us money - I'm not used to any of that. ... To tell you the truth, I didn't even realize they were giving for us at first."

The event was a window into the political machine that has been picking leaders in the tiny district since 2008. In the two past contested elections, TELACU has poured large amounts of money into campaigns to elect their favored candidates who almost always win.

TELACU won, too. Since 2008, the TELACU-backed Centinela Valley school board has put two construction bond measures on the ballot totaling nearly $200 million. Voters approved both, and TELACU was awarded contracts to manage the construction projects.

Clem, president of TELACU Construction Management, did not return calls from the Daily Breeze on Tuesday and Wednesday. But Centinela Valley officials have pointed out that as a result of the two successful bond measures - one in 2008, another in 2010 - major face- lifts have occurred or are in the pipeline for all three campuses. The projects have replaced old, sometimes crumbling facilities with state-of-the-art classroom wings, media centers, offices and commons areas.

Critics, on the other hand, say the whole thing smacks of a money grab for the interested parties at the expense of the taxpayers.

"The problem with Centinela Valley, and so many school districts and community colleges, is that they have become bond-passing machines that milk the public to pay for lavish construction projects, outrageous salaries and terrible loans," said Mariano Vasquez, the plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing a recently passed parcel tax floated by Centinela Valley and four feeder elementary school districts.

"This causes a very harmful misallocation of scarce resources and capital that slowly brings ruin to the town."

In recent weeks, Superintendent Jose Fernandez - who took the helm roughly at the same time that TELACU began exerting its influence in Centinela - has said publicly that the district intends to try for a third construction bond. This announcement came just days before a Feb. 9 story in the Daily Breeze revealed that Fernandez amassed more than $663,000 in total compensation last year. At least $215,000 of that came from a one-time expense, but Fernandez - in exercising another generous provision of his contract - also has taken a $910,000 loan from the school district to purchase a home in Ladera Heights. He has 40 years to pay it off, at 2 percent interest - an unusually favorable set of terms.

Unusual donations

TELACU first demonstrated its ability to influence the outcomes of Centinela Valley school board elections in 2009. …