Wednesday, May 23, 2007 | San Diego school officials gave a green light Tuesday to plans for opening the first public school in Mission Valley, a quickly growing community that has long sought a campus there.

The news, however, received a mixed reception from several community leaders in Mission Valley, a wide swath of land known as one of the city’s central shopping and entertainment destinations that, in recent years, has seen an influx of new residents through the construction of new condominiums and apartment complexes. The new High Tech High Quarry Falls campus won’t open until 2010, and when it does, the school will operate as a charter school, functioning with much independence from San Diego Unified School District.

A Mission Valley First

  • The Issue: The San Diego Unified School District voted Tuesday to allow the creation of a new charter school in Mission Valley, the area’s first public school.
  • What It Means: Because it is a charter school, community activists are worried that it won’t serve the local students.
  • The Bigger Picture: Critics fear that if the district doesn’t take action soon, all of the land suitable for a school could get developed in the area, something that happened in Scripps Ranch when the district miscalculated the need for more campuses there.

District officials continue to say that, according to their projections, the area will not have enough students justify a traditional public school there.

Despite the name, High Tech High Quarry Falls will host an elementary and middle school. The campus will eventually enroll close to 1,000 pupils, as a charter school, its student population will come from all throughout the city, with no preference given to Mission Valley residents. That will likely mean that many Mission Valley parents, who must now drive or bus their kids to other nearby public schools, will continue to need to do so, a point community leaders emphasized Tuesday.

“The problem with the charter school system, with High Tech High, is that it serves the entire city, so you could live two blocks from that school, and have a very difficult time getting in,” Tom Mullaney, head of the grassroots planning group Friends of San Diego, said before the meeting.

Mullaney, a long-time proponent of building a new public school in Mission Valley, had urged members of his organization to make the school board’s vote on the future of High Tech High Quarry Falls a referendum on the district’s commitment to expanding access to public schools in the area. Only two members of the public turned up at the school board meeting, both expressing hesitant support for the new campus, and Mullaney said he was unable to attend himself.

“I’m a big proponent of community schools, and having children attend their neighborhood schools,” said Dorothy Jensen, a Clairemont resident who urged the board to require the new charter school to give preference in admissions to Mission Valley residents.

High Tech High officials, however, say they have little choice in the matter. State law requires charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate without many of the legal regulations governing traditional schools, to reach out to and enroll a broad cross-section of students from the district in which they’re located, a safeguard designed to prevent charters from raiding the public schools’ highest-achieving students. By definition, they say, a charter campus cannot operate as the local neighborhood school.

With the charter petition, approved by the school board this week, High Tech High will now be able to apply for state construction funding ahead of a June deadline.

The push for opening a school in Mission Valley gained steam several years ago, when the community sat down to update the master blueprint guiding new development in the area. Between 1996 and 2005, Mission Valley saw an influx of nearly 2,000 new condo units. With a current total of nearly 18,000 residents, the San Diego Association of Governments expects Mission Valley’s population to grow to more than 31,000 by 2030.

“I believe our group is very much in support of getting a public school in Mission Valley,” said Linda Kaufman, the chairwoman of the Mission Valley Unified Planning Organization, the neighborhood’s planning group.

District officials, Kaufman said, have expressed two concerns: that the multifamily units being built in Mission Valley are unlikely to house many kids; and that opening a campus in the area could force the closure of schools in nearby Serra Mesa, where many Mission Valley parents send their kids in the absence of a local alternative. Already suffering from the district’s declining student numbers, Serra Mesa would be cannibalized by a Mission Valley campus, they fear.

“I would’ve liked to see the school district make the numbers work so we could put a school in Mission Valley,” board member Katherine Nakamura said. “But our demographers didn’t feel that way.”

However, Kaufman said many things have changed since the district last studied the possibility of building a school in Mission Valley. For one, the housing bubble has priced many young families out of single-family homes, forcing them into the kind of condo units being built in the area. Though condos have traditionally yielded few youngsters, the trend is changing, Kaufman said, and many of the units being built in Mission Valley now come with two or three bedrooms, the size favored by families.

Tom Sudberry, whose development company is working on the 230-acre mixed-use Quarry Falls project, slated to add several thousand more units of housing, had initially approached the school district about building a public school as part of the development, the company has said. When the idea received a cool reception from the district, he went to High Tech High, a San Diego charter school chain that has opened campuses across the state.

Facilities chief Roy MacPhail, who is on vacation this week, was unavailable for comment ahead of the school board vote.

Critics of the district say they’re worried that if the school system waits too long, it may find itself without adequate vacant land once Mission Valley gets fully built. Similar foot-dragging by the district, Mullaney said, is responsible for the school overcrowding in Scripps Ranch, which shares Mission Valley’s path of rapid expansion. (District planners had initially also said that Scripps Ranch would not need new schools, though they say they have changed their demographic methods since then.)

While it’s a step in the right direction, Mullaney said he does not expect the Quarry Falls campus to meet the community’s need for public education.

“Somebody better start being visionary and planning ahead,” Linda Vista Civic Association President Doug Beckham told the school board Tuesday. “We need to be prudent.”

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

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