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When I called Mel Katz to congratulate him on the City Council’s approval of the new main library, I mentioned something “a cynic might say.”
He chuckled and asked if my picture would appear next to the dictionary’s entry for “cynic.”
Touché, Mel, touché. You see, I have wondered for years how a city so imbalanced, so passive, so damaged and so scatterbrained could try to build something like this while expecting us to believe it would require no sacrifice at all.
I wondered why, if the city had $80 million in downtown tax dollars set aside to connect people to information, it would choose to use that to build a huge building at a time in our history when so much information can be sent to something smaller than my hand.
That made me a cynic. Library supporters made mince meat out of me, and others like me, in this civic discussion.
Whatever you think about the project, Katz, along with Judith Harris, engineered a successful, four-and-a-half-year final push for the library that was genius. Katz, who helped turn Manpower into one of San Diego’s most powerful companies and Harris, a philanthropic leader and arts maven, are the stars of the week, if not the year.
I asked Mel how he did it.
“I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he said. “If you really want something bad enough you can get it done and you can get it done in this town.”
How? They were persistent, passionate, opportunistic and clever. It might be said that they were successful in spite of being volunteers. I think they were successful because they were volunteers. They were powerful arguers facing people who were immediately disarmed. Think about it, I’m sure every conversation began with “I love libraries…” After that, like good salespeople, Katz and Harris would overcome obstacle after obstacle, with an answer for every objection. And since the pair weren’t trying to make money for themselves, they were disarming.
If you told them no, they’d ask why. And then they’d come up with an alternative.
It wasn’t long ago — two years, in fact — that Mayor Jerry Sanders ostensibly tried. It would need a miracle, the mayor told me. But as they hit roadblocks and busted deadlines, Katz and Harris shifted and creatively adjusted their strategy. Leader after leader — from the City Council to the mayor to the school system — refused to be the one to tell Katz and Harris no.
They may have assumed someone else would and that it was easier to tell Katz and Harris what they wanted to hear. But as time progressed, appeasing Katz and Harris meant only one thing: building a giant new library downtown.
When the mayor said they needed a miracle to get the library built, Katz and Harris didn’t go to church to pray for one, they went to the school district. Specifically they eyed money set aside in a new $2.1 billion voter-approved bond for school facilities and the money in that bond for a downtown school of some kind.
They told the school district to put a school on top of the new library. When they found out that it couldn’t be an elementary school (because you can’t make little kids with their little legs run down stairs in case of a fire) they told them to instead put a high school in it. When they found out that we couldn’t put a normal high school in that building because schools must be built with higher earthquake standards, they told the school district to make it a charter school. Charters are exempt from those standards.
Yes, remember who the cynical one is (hint: me. Them? No, that’s them pushing for a dream).
Do you see what Katz meant by not taking no for answer?
But here was the true genius: They not only got $20 million for the library, but they also corralled a new type of support for the library — those who have often been frustrated by a district unwilling to fund the facilities charter schools need to operate.
That really was a spectacular move. Like a quarterback avoiding a game-ending sack and turning it into an incredible pass downfield. (A side note: Katz tried to tell me it wasn’t a big deal. “I would have found two more $10 million donors,” he said.)
It was, in fact, unprecedented. Katz and Harris had gotten a school district, with a history of hostility to charter schools and their facilities, to spend $20 million building one.
There’s more: I can’t find anyone who has ever heard of a charter school that had its facility before it actually had its charter.
Charter schools normally bubble up with a petition from a group of teachers or parents. And if they get the students and the support, they ask the school district to approve the charter. It’s then that they begin searching, often desperately, for a home.
This is the opposite.
Here you have the mayor and Katz and others trying to put together a school. And it will be interesting to watch this take shape. Already there is confusion.
The mayor — a former police chief now, apparently, turned educator — surprised me recently when he said this on KPBS:
“The students would go half day at San Diego City College, half day in the new campus.”
I hadn’t heard that before. The school district’s spokesman told me he hadn’t heard of this and he referred me to Scott Himelstein.
Himelstein is the director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego — a leader who, in various ways, has tried to marshal support for major reform of a broken education system. Katz and Harris have anointed Himelstein to take the lead on creating a school to fill this new building.
So had he heard the mayor’s declaration about students going only half day to the new school?
“No, we haven’t cooked up a plan for that yet. But I think it’s fair to say that a partnership with San Diego City College has been discussed,” Himelstein said.
Circling back to the mayor, I asked his spokeswoman, Rachel Laing where he got this vision?
“This idea came up in a meeting with school officials as one of the ways they would be able to take advantage of the proximity to City College. However, when the mayor talked about on KPBS, he didn’t make it clear that was an idea as opposed to a firm plan,” Laing told me in an e-mail.
The truth is, it’s not clear what this school will be like at all. Frankly, someone else could compete with Himelstein’s group to get the school district to approve the charter. Perhaps another group has a compelling vision for the space — they’re just as entitled to put together a petition and present it to the school district.
Let’s be honest, though, they’d have to go through Katz and Harris. They own the vision now. It’s tough to say no to them, apparently.
Yet when Councilwoman Marti Emerald talked before her vote to say yes to them, she said it was a very tough decision.
Had she been listening to Katz and Harris, the building required no sacrifice from her or city taxpayers. So where’s the difficulty in this decision? What’s so hard about doing something that requires no pain? Perhaps what gave Emerald pause was the fact that this money didn’t just grow on the Great Downtown Money Tree. We can afford to invest so much in this project because downtown has sequestered hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from the rest of the city, the county and the state.
And the rest of the city is dissolving right now.
Katz said he understood Emerald’s worry. He thinks the tough decision for her was to have faith in him and Harris and their team. Why? They have to raise the $32.5 million more from private donors lest the city be forced to give back $20 million to the state and watch its new facility sit idle. As he admitted, nothing legally binds him and Harris to keep working so feverishly to meet this goal.
But, he also said he would bet me big money on his ability to raise that much money.
I told him no. I don’t want to bet against the city. I don’t want even a small part of me to be vested in things getting worse.
None of us do. The city’s leadership structure as it is decided to build this building. They decided to trust Katz and his confidence and Harris and her brains.
I’m not sure when the last time so much of San Diego’s future has rested on the shoulders of two unpaid, unelected people. But it’s definitely not time to bet against them.