San Diego City Council approved a non-binding letter of intent with the San Diego Unified School District to build a charter high school on two floors of the proposed downtown main library.

The 5-3 council vote was the second official action regarding the so-called schoobrary in recent weeks. Late last month, the San Diego Unified School District board approved the agreement, which would provide $20 million from a recent school bond in exchange for a 40-year lease of the library’s sixth and seventh floors.

The $20 million is a crucial component of the schoobrary‘s overall funding plan, whose current cost of roughly $185 million will be paid for with $80 million of downtown redevelopment money, a pending $20 million state grant and private donations raised by library boosters.

Council President Ben Hueso, who voted in favor of the motion, said the project would fill a growing need for library services downtown.

“We’re coming close to having a population of downtown that’s going to equal or rival any other district and we currently have a library that’s inadequate … This is going to be a wonderful addition to the amenities of downtown,” Hueso said.

But councilmembers Carl DeMaio, Donna Frye and Sherri Lightner, who voted against the motion, questioned the actual cost of a downtown library, with or without a schoobrary. A formal cost estimate of a downtown library project has not been done since 2005.

“Show me how much it’s really going to cost and then I will be able to tell you whether or not I’ll be able to support it. At this point I’m not going to support something that I don’t know the cost of,” Frye said.

Frye was also concerned over how the city has reported the availability of private donor funds to the state in an application for the $20 million grant, something I wrote about yesterday.

Lightner said that committing roughly $200 million for a new library was fiscally irresponsible during a time of financial distress in San Diego, and when the city officials are considering potential closures and reduced hours in branch libraries across the city.

One of the central issues in the debate over the financial viability of the schoobrary project has been whether the Library Foundation, which has committed to raise the remaining funds needed for the project, will be able to do so. The foundation has raised $27.5 million for construction, and has yet to raise an additional $36 million.

In addressing the council before the vote, Mel Katz, vice chair of the foundation’s board of trustees, said the foundation was willing to commit to raising $12 million by the time the project is scheduled to break ground, an additional $12 million before the start of the project’s second phase and the final $12 million by the building’s scheduled completion in January 2013.

If the council enters into a formal memorandum of understanding with the school district, the city could begin taking bids on the project as early as November and secure a maximum price on the project by April of next year.


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