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San Diego Unified is slated to build a new data center at Serra High School to store information, which will double as an educational opportunity for high schoolers who can visit it to learn about computing.

But committee members who help advise the school district on its bond for repairs and renovations say it should be scaled back to save money. They aren’t the only ones who think so: One school board member, Shelia Jackson, derided it as “a big glass Taj Mahal in the middle of these economic times.”

The new data center is supposed to be a backup facility for the school district, which now has just one place where all its data is stored, leaving it vulnerable to a “a catastrophic loss of key and essential operational and academic data,” according to a school district report. It’s estimated to cost $21.4 million.

That money comes from Proposition S, a $2.1 billion bond that voters approved a year and a half ago to repair and renovate schools. Operating it will cost an estimated $25.3 million in district funds over two decades.

Darryl LaGace, who oversees technology in the school district, rhapsodized about the possibilities for students who can learn to maintain computer networks or design applications for the iPhone. “Kids can see what this career leads to,” LaGace explained.

But the souring economy is pushing San Diego Unified to pinch pennies wherever it can on school renovations and construction. It is getting nearly $135 million less in bond money than it originally expected over the next five years. Advisers on the bond oversight committee say that the data center is one place they could look for savings to avoid overrunning their budget over time.

Drawings of the imagined data center show a glassy, modernistic building. Committee member Gil Johnson said nobody wants to cut down on the technical capabilities of the project, but the attractive building might not be necessary. Data centers are usually plain, like this one. Another committee member, John Gordon, pointed out that the data center only has two classrooms, which means a limited number of kids will directly benefit from the $21 million project.

“That’s the kind of math that people will use against you,” Gordon said.

Stuart Markey, who runs the school renovation bond, cautioned that aesthetics do matter, especially for a building on a school campus that could last half a century. “The district has a great history of making terrible buildings,” Markey said. School board member Katherine Nakamura, whose husband is an architect, agreed and argued that good design doesn’t have to be costly.

The school board did not make any decisions about the future of the data center, its looks or its costs. San Diego Unified intends to start building it in fall 2011 and finish it in 2012.

— EMILY ALPERT

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