The San Diego City Council gave the green light Monday to an unusual agreement with the San Diego Unified School District that would set aside two floors of the planned downtown library for a middle or high school.
Doing so would infuse millions into the downtown project: Including a school is a lifeline for the long beleaguered downtown library, a project in peril until San Diego Unified School District offered to chip in more than $20 million in exchange for the space. Getting the school lease is also crucial if San Diego hopes to keep another $20 million state grant for the project, a key chunk of its financing.
If the school board also approves the same lease before May, San Diego will have met the first of two major requirements to keep its state grant.
The city also has to get an updated estimate on the bottom line for the entire library, which was last estimated to cost $185 million five years ago. City officials said they expect to total up the bids for the building by April 29, just before the deadline.
The council approved the lease by a 5-3 vote. But that unknown price tag is one massive question mark over the downtown deal.
Councilman Carl DeMaio argued that it would ultimately hurt branch libraries, where most branches have been pared back from 51 hours week a decade ago to 36 hours this budget year. DeMaio voted against the lease, along with Donna Frye and Sherri Lightner.
“No one has any idea what it’s going to cost right now,” Frye said. She later added, “Depending on what it costs, this could all be a waste of our time.”
The remaining five members were enthusiastic about linking a new library and school. Council Todd Gloria called it “the way government should work.”
Boosters say the schoobrary will also be a welcome new option for thousands of parents from downtown to Logan whose teen children are bused across the city to attend other schools instead of the cluster of schools-within-a-school at San Diego High.
“Why not give Preuss School a run for its money?” said Laura Andrews, a single mother who invoked the famous charter school in La Jolla that one of her sons attends instead of going to his neighborhood school. “Let’s be proud of several schools — not just Preuss.”
The lease would give San Diego Unified the sixth and seventh floors of the planned downtown library for 40 years at a $20 million cost, paid beforehand bit-by-bit as the library is built. The school district also expects to pay $10 million to add flooring, interior walls and other improvements.
Out of that $30 million, $13 million would come out of a $2.1 billion school construction bond that voters approved a year and a half ago. That money has been pinched as property values drop, forcing the school district to delay dozens of planned projects.
The remaining $17 million would come out of redevelopment funds earmarked for downtown schools. The main worry for San Diego Unified is how it will protect that money if the library goes belly up.
Under the lease, the school district will get the deeds to up to two city properties valued at $30 million or more that it can sell off if the city breaks off the agreement for any reason. But the agreement doesn’t specify which city properties would be part of the deal. City Council members insisted they should get the final say on those properties, which could include vacant industrial land near Convoy Street or a Chargers practice field off Murphy Canyon Road.
The school district can also break off the agreement before it pays any money at all if San Diego fails to start construction by August 2011, one year after construction is now planned to begin.
But the deal falls a little short of what the school district had earlier hoped for: Outside experts who help oversee the school renovation bond had wanted the city to simply guarantee that schools would be repaid through a line of credit if the library dissolved. Several committee members who skimmed the lease before the Monday meeting said that while they still had questions about the deal, it looked like the school district had protected its money.
“It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” said John Gordon, a member of the committee who said he was still worried about unspecified costs for security and landscaping that were mentioned in the lease.
San Diego Unified will also get a seat on the Library Commission, which would help it influence the book collections in the imagined library.
While the space is supposed to be used for a charter middle or high school, San Diego Unified is also allowed to use it for offices or a private school. It is relatively rare for school districts to build space for charter schools, which are independently run, publicly funded and usually overseen by districts.
It isn’t clear who will get the space, but there is already one group vying to create the charter: The San Diego Library Foundation is working with the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego to hash out ideas for how the school could be run and what its focus might be. Scott Himelstein, director of the center, said they hoped to finish up their plans by December.
Critics have questioned whether the schoobrary is really necessary. While the school district had planned to fund a downtown school with its bond money, it was originally imagined as an elementary school. It evolved into a charter school for older students largely because of clashes between state school laws and the library plan.
“It isn’t what we planned to do with the money,” said John de Beck, a dissenting member of the school board. “It’s being log-rolled by people who have a vested interest in downtown.”