Three Strikes and you’re Out!
By Sal Casamassima, Chair – Alpine High School
For The Alpine Sun
On January 22 Judge Joel Pressman of the California Superior Court, delivered a huge victory to the supporters of a high school in Alpine. Judge Pressman issued a preliminary injunction that requires the Grossmont Union School District (GUHSD) to set aside $42 Million of Prop U bond money that would be used toward the construction of the long-overdue Alpine High School. GUHSD must set aside $14 Million immediately and another $28 Million on January 15, 2016. Although the $42M is less than the $70M needed to build a school on the Lazy A site it nevertheless represents a major victory for Alpine. This article will discuss why the court issued this injunction and its importance in preserving our ability to fund construction of the high school.
Step Back in Time:
Understanding the Court decision requires us to take a step back in time. In March 2004 East County voters, including Alpine, passed Prop H – a $274 Million bond measure that would enable badly needed repairs and upgrades to existing GUHSD schools and the construction of a new high school to serve the Alpine and Blossom Valley communities. The school was estimated to cost about $71 Million ($90M in 2015 dollars.) With state matching funds, Prop H would generate over $400M in total cash. Unfortunately, through a combination of project mismanagement and cost overruns, GUHSD spent most of the Prop H funds without beginning construction of the new high school.
An independent Bond Advisory Commission was formed to review what went wrong and to make recommendations to GUHSD. Those recommendations coupled with input from the new Grossmont superintendent, Bob Collins, led to a 2nd bond proposition - Prop U. Mr. Collins made it clear that the new bond was intended to complete all of the “must do and should do” projects listed by Prop H, including the Alpine high school. If funds were left over then GUHSD could undertake other “would like to do” projects not covered by Prop H. Prop U was authorized for $417 Million and was approved by voters in November 2008. Between Props H and U and state matching funds, GUHSD would have access to nearly $850 Million.
Taxpayers, including all Alpine property owners, foot the bill for these two bond measures. A home in Alpine, appraised at $500,000 has an annual tax bill of about $300 to pay for the bonds – payments to be made for the next 40 years. Alpine taxpayers would be getting their money’s worth on this hefty tax bill if GUHSD did what it had promised to do in both bonds – build a high school. But they have done no such thing. Although more than $20 Million was spent acquiring the Lazy A property in Alpine, designing the school for the site, and acquiring the necessary permits, GUHSD has no intention of ever building the school. Their Board majority placed the Alpine school at the bottom of their project list and put all of the “would like to do” projects ahead of our “must do” school. The school is now slated for “construction” in 2032, long after all $850 Million in bond money is spent. To add insult to injury, their Board added major, non-essential projects at other schools that were never mentioned in either Props H or U.
Strike One – the Grand Jury Report:
Grossmont’s misconduct did not go unnoticed. In 2012 the San Diego County Grand Jury conducted an investigation of why Grossmont was not building our high school and issued a scathing report entitled “Grossmont – Fool Us Once, Fool Us Twice”. Being investigated by a grand jury is usually not a good thing and this investigation was no exception to that rule. The Grand Jury concluded GUHSD twice broke its promise (in two bond measures) to build the high school and recommended that it either set aside an escrow fund for the school and commence construction pursuant to a credible timeline or take all reasonable steps to cooperate with Alpine’s unification effort. GUHSD rejected the Grand Jury report and all of its recommendations.
Significantly, the Grand Jury hinted at the underlying political shenanigans at Grossmont that are the real reasons behind the failure to build the school, most prominently the kerfuffle over naming the school “Ronald Reagan High School”. The naming fiasco created embarrassment for certain Board members as well as prominent figures in the Republican party in California. It is no coincidence that all work on the high school came to an abrupt halt following this incident. If you find this hard to believe then ask yourself why would GUHSD spend over $20 Million of taxpayer money to acquire the Lazy A site, develop detailed architectural plans, acquire critical permits and then stop all work. These events also coincided with the resignation of Superintendent Collins, a strong advocate for the Alpine school. No need to hire Sherlock Holmes to realize political revenge and personal animosity between certain Board members are the primary catalysts that doomed the Alpine school.
With GUHSD thumbing its nose at the Grand Jury, Alpine’s only recourse was unification and petitioners gathered over 3000 Alpine voter signatures. Unification would mean that AUSD would “divorce” GUHSD and become a K-12 school district. More importantly, the petition seeks our “equitable share” of GUHSD’s assets. That share is estimated at $90 Million, representing Alpine’s approximate 6% share of the assessed property valuation within the GUHSD boundary. The $90M in assets would be comprised of the Lazy A site plus $70M in cash to grade the site and build the school. The Alpine High School Citizens Committee (AHSCC) partnered with the Alpine school district in pursuit of unification and, once our petition signatures were certified, the San Diego Board of Education commenced hearings to consider our unification request.
Strike Two – the County Board of Education supports Alpine unification:
GUHSD officials approached the Alpine unification hearings with the same arrogance displayed in their reaction to the Grand Jury report. GUHSD, confident it would defeat Alpine, initially chose not to directly deal with the merits of our petition and instead challenged it on racial grounds, alleging that Alpine was a “white segregated community” seeking to separate itself from the more diverse Grossmont district. Needless to say, such Jim Crow comments did not sit well with Alpine folks including the Hispanic, Native American, and other minority groups that call Alpine their home. The hearings were a lop-sided shellacking of GUHSD. Forty public commenters including Alpine community leaders, representatives from Viejas and Sycuan, and Supervisor Dianne Jacob testified in support of Alpine. Not a single member of the public supported GUHSD. Even Grossmont Board member Priscilla Schreiber openly stated her support for Alpine’s unification.
Following these disastrous (for GUHSD) hearings, the San Diego County Board of Education met in August of last year to conduct a final meeting and issue its recommendations. The Board unanimously (5-0) voted in favor of Alpine’s unification and, most significantly, recommended that Alpine’s position on the division of assets and liabilities be adopted. It also recommended that the election on Alpine unification be limited to the boundary of the Alpine school district and not the entire GUHSD boundary. Grossmont, stunned by this defeat at the County, callously passed a resolution calling the County Board’s decision “appalling” and vowed to continue its opposition to Alpine’s unification. The resolution also falsely alleged that the $70 Million potential cash payment to Alpine would come out of operating expenses instead of the stockpile of bond money financed by taxpayers.
Strike Three – the Court Injunction:
The County recommendations supporting Alpine were forwarded to the State Board of Education (SBE) in September, 2014. The SBE has the final say on Alpine unification and how assets and liabilities are to be divided. It also decides whether the election is to be local to Alpine. Although SBE is not required to follow the recommendations of the County, the Education Code and regulations strongly suggest that the County’s recommendations be given considerable weight. However, unlike the County, there is no time limitation on how long the SBE has to reach a decision and unification petitions have commonly languished at the State for 2 or more years.
This presented Alpine with a serious dilemma. With GUHSD rapidly burning through bond funds it was easy to calculate that all available cash and bonding capacity for the foreseeable future would be spent in under two years. Even if Alpine achieved total victory at the State, Grossmont would point to its empty pockets and claim that no money was left to pay Alpine its fair share of assets. To prevent this, AUSD and individual taxpayers filed the lawsuit mentioned at the beginning of this article. We sought to enjoin GUHSD from spending down bond funds on projects other than the Alpine school and asked that spending be halted until SBE renders a decision on Alpine’s unification and division of assets. We have also sued GUHSD for “waste” of taxpayer money by spending bond funds on projects such as “event centers” and new administration buildings that were not authorized by Prop H or U.
GUHSD Superintendent Ralf Swenson referred to our law suit as “frivolous” and GUHSD was confident our suit would be summarily dismissed. They hired top notch and EXPENSIVE defense counsel from Irvine whose legal fees are paid from (guess what) bond funds! Their legal team spared no effort or expense in throwing every argument in the book against Alpine. However, Judge Pressman read the bond language and agreed that it clearly called for a school in Alpine. He also agreed that GUHSD was rapidly burning through cash. To his credit, Judge Pressman urged the parties to reach a settlement but GUHSD refused to negotiate in good faith. In the end, the Judge did what was right and just and ordered GUHSD to set aside $42 Million.
True to form, GUHSD referred to the Judge’s decision as “unfathomable” and expressed their intent to appeal. However, despite their handwringing, the court order was fair and leaves GUHSD with sufficient cash to continue all of their ongoing construction projects. Although Alpine will pursue the full $70M needed to build the school when we go before the SBE, the $42M sets aside for Alpine an extremely important cushion of funds – certainly better than the zero dollars that GUHSD set aside.
So What’s Next and What Can You Do?
With the actions taken by the Grand Jury, the County, and the Superior Court, GUHSD now has 3 strikes against it. Unfortunately, this is not baseball so they have one more swing of the bat with the SBE. Having painted themselves in a corner, GUHSD will now deploy every dirty trick in the book to continue the fight against Alpine. They are telling the teachers union that teachers will lose their jobs if Alpine prevails; that the District might go bankrupt, and that, despite having spent $600 Million of bond money to date, their schools still require badly needed repairs to prevent danger and injury to students. We expect that Alpine will also be blamed for global warming and the recent measles outbreak. Of course, none of their scare tactics are true and the State will not buy their malarkey but GUHSD will do its best to frighten their teachers, parents and students into believing the end is near.
Regardless of GUHSD’s propaganda campaign, Alpine will continue to do what we’ve been doing all along. We speak the truth and stick to the facts in stating our case. We act transparently, honestly, and show respect for the government agencies and the courts that we come before. At the top of the list, we seek an outcome that is in the best interest of the students, families, teachers and taxpayers of Alpine. We are tired of GUHSD’s deception, contemptible disdain for our community, and theft of our hard earned tax dollars and can’t wait until we are irrevocably separated from their dysfunctional governing board. Finally, we will not rest until we receive our rightful share of bond funds necessary to build our high school. We will prevail.
You can learn more about the Alpine Unification effort from our web site www.alpinehighschool.net. A comprehensive update to the citizens of Alpine will also be presented at a soon to be announced community forum. Presentations will be made on the litigation and other recent events relating to Alpine’s unification effort.
In closing, our thanks go out to the Board members of the Alpine Union School District and our Superintendent Bruce Cochrane for their unwavering support of the unification effort. Also much gratitude to the many community volunteers who have given countless hours of their valuable time to support this worthy cause that will pay great dividends to our beautiful community. And a special thanks to the many individuals and organizations in Alpine who have generously contributed to help support the cause, particularly the generous support from our friends at Viejas. Please continue with your assistance as we still have a long road ahead to achieve unification and build our high school. Your tax deductible contributions to the 501 c(3) Alpine Education Foundation ( www.aef4kids.net ) will support the Alpine school district and be greatly appreciated.