Monday, July 7, 2008 | Fran Pillersdorf has seen more and more kids being ferried from aisle to aisle at the grocery store since she moved downtown 13 years ago, her two sons in tow. But over the years many of the schools seem to have disappeared: a private school that closed, a nearby charter school that moved away, another that planned to open downtown, and now won’t. She was unimpressed with the only public elementary school.

“There’s nothing,” said Pillersdorf, who is sending her younger son to a new charter school slated for downtown. “San Diego Unified says kids should be able to walk to school. But that was never offered to people in the city core.”

That could be changing. More money is flowing to San Diego Unified for downtown schools, and planners predict that even more children will soon live downtown. Those numbers are fueling an attitude shift at San Diego Unified, long skeptical of the push to start building a new school before children populate the city center. Staffers are proposing to earmark $20 million from a planned $2.1 billion facilities bond, slated to go before voters in November, to help pay for a new downtown school.

That sum won’t pay the entire cost of a new school, estimated at $60 million or more in future dollars. Some boosters are skeptical that the earmark is any guarantee of how the dollars will be spent if the bond passes. But setting aside future funds for a downtown school is the first step that San Diego Unified has proposed to realize residents’ and developers’ dream.

Yet a key question remains: If they build it, will families come — or stay — downtown?

Wealthier parents downtown have often traded condominiums on busy streets for bigger homes with lawns in the suburbs as toddlers grow into grade-schoolers. If they stay, will they send their kids to public schools nearby? And with student numbers stagnating across San Diego Unified, should dollars be spent on new schools before a critical mass of kids has gathered downtown?

“The logic of it escapes me,” said school board member John de Beck, whose district includes downtown. De Beck advocates busing downtown students to under-enrolled schools such as Crown Point Elementary or magnet programs elsewhere until he sees permits pulled for family housing downtown.

“Show me the kids. … Then we’ll start building as soon as we can,” he said. “It’s in the developer’s best interest to build the school first. But it’s not in the school district’s best interest.”

The last push to build new schools, the $1.51 billion Proposition MM, backfired somewhat on San Diego Unified when student numbers started falling, starving schools for enrollment. Student enrollment has dropped by roughly 17,000 kids over the past decade, and downtown is no exception to the trend.

School district demographer Roy MacPhail estimated that the pool of 628 downtown students enrolled in public and charter schools in 1999 had thinned dramatically down to 399 students in 2006. That figure increased last year to 489.

The sole public elementary school downtown, Washington, still has five empty classrooms, said third grade teacher Mark Schwarz. Nearly two-thirds of its current students don’t live downtown, but commute to school from as far as Chula Vista and Lakeside with parents who work downtown. Under-enrollment was a key reason that Washington attempted to incorporate a closed private school as a special program last year in what turned out to be a bitterly controversial move.

Yet planners say there are more than four times as many children downtown than there are at public or charter schools, reflecting an untapped resource for San Diego Unified, which gets state dollars based on how many children it educates. More than 2,100 school-age children live in the Centre City area, according to a nine-month-old estimate from the San Diego Association of Governments. And those numbers could jump to nearly 3,000 by 2010, the agency predicted in 2006.

Schwarz knew “strollers are on the increase” downtown. But the numbers stunned him.

“That’s a lot more kids than any of us thought,” he said. “No matter how you slice it, Washington can’t take care of 2,100-odd kids downtown.”

And as downtown planners predict more kids, the school district is getting more funding from downtown development.

A chunk of the property taxes paid to the Centre City Development Corp., the city department responsible for downtown redevelopment, go to San Diego Unified specifically for public schools that serve downtown students, including neighboring schools in Barrio Logan and Sherman Heights.

The early returns were annual sums of $1 million or less that CCDC used to buy and demolish a “sleazy” motel near Washington Elementary, to shape up the front face of San Diego High School, and to put more landscapers to work at both schools, said Frank Alessi, vice president and chief financial officer of CCDC.

As tax revenues rise, the percentage devoted to San Diego Unified has jumped from 0.65 percent to 2.4 percent to 4 percent, where it stands today — a sum of $3.17 million last school year. The fraction allocated to the school district is bumped higher when the tax revenue hits certain thresholds. If revenues surge further past $114 million, that fraction will leap to 13.6 percent of the funds, pouring more than $15.5 million into schools that serve downtown.

That could happen within three or four years, Alessi said. Matched with the $20 million earmarked from the planned facilities bond, those funds could help propel a new school into being.

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Jim Watts, director of architecture and planning for San Diego Unified, said that any new downtown school wouldn’t be “a vanilla elementary school,” but would likely be a magnet school with a specialized focus. Such schools have proved popular elsewhere in San Diego Unified.

The popularity boost is needed: Most downtown parents and parents-to-be are either unaware or unimpressed by downtown public schools, according to a survey conducted in June for CCDC, which is interested in a new school.

And those who homeschool or send their children to private or charter schools outside the downtown zip code are unlikely to send their kids to any new public school, the survey found. That means that the new school could have trouble drawing students who aren’t attending other San Diego Unified schools, moving enrollment instead of boosting it.

Building a new school also means gambling that downtown families will change their ways, stay downtown and choose a nearby public school. Young couples have often packed up and moved out of downtown to single-family homes with yards as their children reach school-going age, MacPhail said. The downturn in housing may keep them rooted downtown, said Gary Smith, president of the Downtown Residents Group. Or it might not.

“Whatever you do, you’re placing a bet,” Smith said. “A lot of the families downtown now have small children. They may decide it’s time to move out to La Jolla. We haven’t a clue.”

And many lower-income families in East Village are used to busing their children elsewhere. Inside his small apartment in an affordable housing complex, Hector Benitez raved about Sessions Elementary in Pacific Beach, where his sons are bused daily. Frequent e-mails and phone calls from teachers help cut down the distance, he said. Their bus stop is only three blocks away.

“So do I really want a change?” he asked rhetorically. “No.”

Financial watchdogs such as the San Diego County Taxpayers Association say that though San Diego Unified’s enrollment isn’t climbing, surging student numbers in specific areas could merit building new schools. The problem is that San Diego Unified has been loath to close schools when enrollment plummets, leaving the school district with nearly 40 schools with fewer than 400 students. Running the schools costs $14.4 million more than closing them, according to school district estimates.

“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t build any new schools,’” said William Wright, vice chairman of San Diego Unified’s audit and finance committee. “But you need to balance that out. They’re behind in closing down facilities.”

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