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Monday, June 22, 2009 | Citizens charged with overseeing Proposition S, the $2.1 billion bond for revamping and repairing San Diego Unified schools, pushed Monday for an agreement that would protect any money that the school district chips into a charter school that would be ensconced in the long-delayed downtown library.

Their fear, largely left unspoken, was that the library could sink and take school funds with it.

It is another sign of the ongoing worries about the feasibility of the library project, which has struggled to gain funding for years and could still fall short of its financial targets, even with the school money in hand. The committee also stalled on the larger question of whether the project was consistent with the aims of state law and the bond itself — a question that is fundamental to whether the money can be spent on it.

“There are too many open questions in our mind that do not have conclusive answers,” said Gil Johnson, the chairman of the committee, who voted that the project did indeed fit under the bond rules.

The plan to protect the San Diego Unified money has yet to be drafted, but members of the oversight committee who voted for the measure to “properly collateralize” the school bond funds said it would reduce the financial risk to the school district if the library plans dissolve. Matt Spathas, one of the members who proposed the idea, said it would ensure that schools could easily recoup their bond money from the library owner — presumably the city or an entity it creates — instead of suing to regain the funds. None of the details have been hashed out.

It comes just one day before the San Diego Unified board is slated to vote on a proposal that would propel the school district forward in talks of placing a charter high school on two floors of the library. The board will weigh a nonbinding “letter of intent” on Tuesday that would represent another step forward in the plan to spend $20 million of bond money to lease two floors of the library for 40 years. It does not guarantee any money for the project and can be terminated before building begins.

Plugging a charter school into the library is the latest incarnation of a long-running discussion of how schools could be incorporated in the project. Downtown school boosters were most interested in an elementary school, but state rules bar San Diego Unified from putting young children on upper floors of the building. Talk then turned to a high school, but another state law would mean costly changes in the building design for earthquake safety. So the project evolved into a charter school: a publicly funded and independently run school that is exempt from the rules that would hike the library cost.

Supporters say it will benefit the school district and the city alike by providing another high school option downtown and giving a lifeline to the downtown library. They point to the thousands of high school students who live within the boundaries of San Diego High, the nearest high school, who are bused to other schools. The idea fits the philosophy of Superintendent Terry Grier, who has promoted small, themed high schools as a way to stanch the tide of dropouts. Sherman Harmer, chairman of the Downtown Residential Marketing and Builders Alliance, called it “a perfect answer” for downtowners.

“It would have a special status. You look at the central library as a center of more sophisticated learning,” Harmer said. “It is perceived as different than just straight public education.”

Opponents complain that the tail has wagged the dog, forcing San Diego Unified to salvage the library with plans that seem only distantly related to the needs that originally propelled it to include a downtown school in its bond — the vocal push for a new elementary school. A survey done last summer for the Centre City Development Corp. found “not much structural demand for middle and high schools” and stated, “The new school must be an elementary.” Ponying up the $20 million for the library means that the funds are off the table for an elementary school, though some proponents of downtown schools say they still believe that a school can be funded with other revenues outside the bond. Downtown parents who had clamored for an elementary school but also want a library are split and conflicted.

“This came out of left field,” said Fran Pillersdorf, a parent who sits on the Centre City Advisory Committee. “There was a whole task force trying to figure out what to do downtown, and now it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s nice that you need that, but this is what we want.” She paused. “But I’m kind of pro-library.”

Others say any added schools downtown are a blessing. Though there are nearby high schools in the San Diego High complex, Todd Ruth, a member of CCDC’s Education Task Force, said that while elementary schools were their priority, “anything helps.”

But the citizens oversight committee for Proposition S could not come to agreement on whether the school-in-the-library idea even fit under the rules that govern school facilities bonds and Proposition S in particular. One member, attorney John Stump, said he was unconvinced that the plan really provided “matching funds” for money provided by other sources, which was one provision of the downtown project plans outlined in the bond. “I don’t know who’s matching us,” he said.

Another member, John Gordon, said that he was not convinced that leasing the floors for a charter qualified as “real property” for school facilities, another provision of the law. The committee deadlocked on the question, with five members voting that the plan was consistent with state law and the bond, four opposing, and one abstaining. The lack of a majority means that the committee neither voted for nor against the motion.

The exact costs of the plan are still being detailed. Though San Diego Unified would fork over $20 million in bond funds under the proposal, the final price tag would actually be significantly higher for the school district, which would also pay $10 million in other school funds to finish the school with interior walls, carpet, flooring and lighting. There could be other discounts: Russ Sande, managing principal for a real estate advising firm, said that San Diego Unified and the city were still negotiating a discount rate for paying the lease earlier, which could shave off up to 5.5 percent off the leasing costs.

Sande, who has been hired by San Diego Unified to help with the library issue, said the lease would be a bargain for the school district. He tallied up the costs at $2.44 per square foot per month, and said that a typical high rise downtown would cost more than $3 per square foot per month.

But oversight committee members wanted more information before weighing in on the finances of the idea and whether it was a prudent choice. Their advice will be presented to the school board Tuesday when it takes up the library school plan.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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