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Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006 | On demand, Elva Perry can list off three or four entire categories of books she’d add to the library at Washington Elementary School if the money were there. Particularly, she’d love to have more books about holidays and seasons – snowy winters, colored autumn leaves, Columbus Day.

Perry, the school’s librarian, knows something about changing seasons. In Perry’s 14 years at Washington Elementary, the only district-run elementary school in downtown’s 92101 zip code, downtown’s population has boomed, but her school’s enrollment has dropped. When she started in 1993, the school hosted between 400 and 500 students, although it included sixth grade as well. Now only between 250 and 300 kindergarten-through-fifth grade students attend the school.

That’s why Perry is surprised that some developers and residents in the downtown area want to see more schools built.

“We need more kids, if anything,” she said.

Developers say the only way to get more kids in downtown is to build more schools – something they say is bound to attract more families to the area. They’ve paid fees specifically for education on every square foot of new development they’ve added during downtown’s residential construction boom, and they want to know why that money isn’t going back into the community where the development is happening.

School district personnel, in turn, say they can’t look at building a new school until the population warrants it.

“Once there is a proven need for a school, that’s when we would build it,” said Erika Wilgenburg, facilities spokeswoman for San Diego City Schools. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing.”

Sherm Harmer, chairman of the Downtown Residential Marketing and Builders Alliance, estimated that between monies already paid and monies pending for future projects, education fees charged to developers have reached nearly $40 million since 1999. The developers are still waiting to see a return on their investment in downtown, he said.

“As we build more affordable housing downtown, it’s going to be important that we have accommodations for families,” Harmer said.

Developers throughout the entire school district, not just downtown, paid $2.24 per residential square foot and $0.36 per commercial square foot, totaling $10.2 million in fees to the school district last fiscal year, Wilgenburg said. Specific data was not available for the downtown area, but Wilgenburg said the money collected downtown can be spent district-wide, not just downtown.

That money isn’t just sitting untouched somewhere, Wilgenburg said.

Even if the fees collected from downtown were allocated just to the downtown area, they wouldn’t provide enough capital to build a new school, she said. Wilgenburg cited an example of a new school project three years ago in City Heights, where simply buying the six-and-a-half acre parcel of land cost approximately $30 million. That’s why the district favors spending the money on such things as furniture and portable classrooms for overloaded school campuses.

Wilgenburg isn’t surprised, though, at the developers’ persistence in trying to convince the school district to build more schools in downtown.

“We’re not in the business of building a school so that builders can sell condos,” she said.

Harmer said he’d like to see the school district invest in land with plans to eventually build a new school in downtown. He said he understands that building projects don’t happen overnight, but that he hopes the developers, school district officials and downtown residents can start to communicate about the issues they’ve encountered.

“We think it’s time for a meaningful dialogue,” he said.

Perry, the librarian, faults the eviction of many of the area’s low-income families to make room for new condo developments for much of the drop in student population. She said the only way the school has been able to maintain its numbers is due to nonresident students who are shuttled in by parents who work downtown.

Roy MacPhail, director of facilities planning for the school district, closely monitors the district’s demographics. MacPhail said he and his team analyze census data and their own student data to determine where best in the district to allocate resources for new buildings or improvement projects.

He said the population of kindergarten-through-grade 12 students residing downtown – defined by the area overseen by the Centre City Development Corp. – doesn’t warrant the building of a new school. That population was 435 in 2005, an 18-percent decrease from 2002 and a 30-percent decrease from 1999, MacPhail said.

MacPhail accounted for the decrease in a couple of different ways. The school district allows parents several options for enrolling their children in public schools other than the designated school for the area. And many of the families moving to downtown enroll their children in private schools, he said.

The office is working on an updated demographic report for the entire district, MacPhail said. That report, due to be completed in the next few months, considers data for the entire school-age population, while his data reported for the CCDC area accounts only for registered students in San Diego City Schools.

Builders and developers aren’t the only ones asking the school district to reexamine the needs in the area. Downtown resident Gary Smith said 18 babies have been born in the last two and a half years in his condo complex. Downtown residents advocates like Smith, president and director of the San Diego Residents Group, are concerned that young families living in downtown will move out of the area when their kids are old enough to attend school.

The closest middle school to the area is Roosevelt Middle School, on Park Boulevard, north of the San Diego Zoo. San Diego High School is also on Park Boulevard, next to City College.

While Smith acknowledges that “things are not all that bad downtown” when it comes to the number of schools, he and others are hoping the school district will start looking to build some new schools to keep the families there.

“We’re trying to make sure things stay diverse,” Smith said. “Anything that adds to the diversity of downtown, we support.”

Nancy Graham, CCDC president, said the discussion of the downtown education issue is a conversation worth having between developers, residents, government and the private sector. In fact, Graham, Harmer and a few others will meet Friday to get the ball rolling on the dialogue.

“I want to look at how CCDC and the private sector needs to step up to the plate,” she said.

Harmer acknowledges the city’s work to increase the quality of life for its downtown residents with 10 new parks on the way. But he still sees the schools issue as crucial.

“If we’re seriously looking at the future and looking to get a balance, this is an issue that needs to be seriously addressed,” he said.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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