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Last year, when the San Diego Unified School District was desperately trying to close its budget deficit and protect classrooms from thousands of teacher layoffs, it decided to sell some land.

This was in addition to the concessions it demanded from teachers and other cuts it made. That’s how lopsided the balance sheet had gotten: Selling land may be a one-time fix but the school board decided the one time had come.

Since then, the district has sold two pieces of land. It has until June to book the revenue it already, essentially, has spent.

But on Dec. 11 the school board surprisingly scuttled the third sale of an undeveloped plot in Tierrasanta known as Camp Elliott. After months of effort, district staff had secured an offer 48 percent higher than what it needed out of the deal.

What happened was a perfect end to a tale about a still crippled district, dysfunctional in its communications and unclear on its priorities.

At a June school board meeting, the board agreed by a vote of 4-1 to sell seven properties. The desperation was palpable. The deficit was a “staggering” $120 million, the superintendent, Bill Kowba said.

“We need to stay the course to go forward. The timing of the budget adoptions, the size of our budget deficit, the pressures to do some difficult things in difficult times requires that this sale go forward,” he told the crowd, many of whom were furious that the district would sell prized assets, like the former Mission Bay Elementary, in a down market.

“It’s like selling your grandma’s jewelry to pay the rent. Probably this will go down as one of the most boneheaded things this district has ever done,” school board member Scott Barnett said during the meeting.

Maybe it was boneheaded, but the decision was made. The district went forward with the sale; only Barnett voted against it.

The staff began a months-long process of public notices to put the properties up for auction.

Finally, on Dec. 4, staff auctioned off the Camp Elliott property for $4 million, $1.3 million more than what the the district anticipated.

By Dec. 11, the deal was before the board. To get the actual transaction done before the end of the year, the district needed a final approval on the bid.

“This is money we’re already spending this year,” said John Lee Evans, the board president.

But Kevin Beiser, the board member who represents Tierrasanta, balked. The district had not reached out to the Tierrasanta community, including its town council and representatives of the school cluster.

As district deputy superintendent of business, Phil Stover, pointed out, the district would not have answers for these people, who would obviously want to know what was going to be built. The district was not proposing that anything be built.

It’s hardly in a position to explain what its own near-term future is, let alone what the private developer is planning. The district’s job is to educate kids.

But Beiser was not going along. “I just became aware that there’s an endangered species there. Did we have an opportunity to look into that?” he asked a flustered staff.

They had not.

Staff reminded the board that they had already budgeted the money from the sale. Ami Shackelford, the director of budget development, warned the board that the deficit for next year, already a hulking $84 million, would get worse if the deal was thwarted.

If the board hesitated at the meeting, the sale was going to be lost and, if it wanted to sell the property, it’d have to go through the process again.

Richard Barrera, another board member, wondered what was going on. The decision had been made to sell the properties. The bid was up for approval. However valid Beiser’s questions were, it was a bit late to be asking them, Barrera said. They had already budgeted around the sales.

“At this point, our question should simply be, ‘Do we think we got the best bid that we can get?’ Not whether or not we actually go ahead and sell the property,” Barrera said.

Beiser told me that he only approved of the sale when the district staff assured him that they would do outreach to the Tierrasanta community.

“Staff dropped the ball,” he said.

He voted against the sale. New board member Marne Foster did as well. And so did Barnett, who had long opposed all the sales.

The deal had collapsed. But the board bizarrely directed the staff to try again.

So, in January, the staff will once again ask the board to let them auction the Camp Elliott property.

But they will need four votes, not just a majority three, to put the property up for bid again. With Barnett out, both Foster and Beiser will have to flip to support the deal.

Here’s the problem: Before January, the district won’t have made any progress reaching out to the Tierrasanta community. Will Beiser support putting it out to bid right after scuttling it even if they don’t assuage his main concern?

“Yes, I’ll put it out to bid as long as staff engages the community before the final vote,” he told me.

He said that he had told the staff to do this before. And they made the mistake.

He’s right. He did tell them this.

Beiser said Bill Kowba, the superintendent, apologized to him after the meeting.

“Mr. Kowba acknowledged that staff did not do the board requested outreach,” wrote Bernie Rhinerson, the district’s chief of staff, in an email to me.

So it’s back to the drawing board. If Beiser and Foster agree, the district’s staff will put the property out to bid again. They’ll do all the notifications and public notices again. They’ll do the auction again.

And hopefully, they’ll get a $4 million offer (or more) again. Then they’ll need four votes at the board again.

Then they’ll have to try to get the actual sale and transaction done as soon as possible.

Because, remember, they’ve already spent the money.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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