There are a couple ironic plot twists at work when it comes to the future of a parcel of land the San Diego Unified school board sold off this week to HTH Learning, the private nonprofit that oversees the High Tech High charter schools.

Just because High Tech is buying former Hale Junior High School site in Clairemont for $22.4 million doesn’t automatically mean it’ll be able to open a school there.  The possibility exists that San Diego Unified – the entity selling the property – could refuse to approve the buyer’s proposed use of the property. HTH will have to get board approval before operating a charter school on the site.

The sale also blurs the picture for the district’s plan to put a quality school in every neighborhood – Clairemont currently has droves of families opting out of their neighborhood schools and driving all over town to better ones. If High Tech High opens a school on the site, it – and not a school operated by the district – would be the neighborhood’s quality school.

The 19-acre property is located on Mt. Alifan Drive in Clairemont and has been leased since 1985 to Horizon Christian Fellowship, which operates a private school on the site and pays the district $1.25 million a year for the lease.

HTH Learning operates six charter schools in the San Diego Unified School District and five others throughout the county. It presented a plan at the Dec. 3 board meeting to open another elementary school, HTe Charter, on the Liberty Station campus. That new school, if approved by the board, would open in fall 2015.

The first High Tech school opened in 2000. HTH Learning currently operates two middle schools, three high schools and Explorer Elementary School on the Liberty Station campus. Representatives from HTH Learning could not be reached for comment on the pending sale of the Hale site.

The High Tech schools receive far more applicants than they can accommodate, about one student gets in for every four who apply. The schools select students using a computerized lottery. The school’s website says: “spaces are allocated to form a student body that reflects the demographics of the region in which the school is located.”

Mike Snyder, president of the Clairemont Mesa Educational Foundation and the Madison High School Cluster, said whatever school High Tech opens on the site would create a ripple effect throughout the community. Because of the lottery system, only a small number of neighborhood families will be able to enroll – he said he’s been told only between 36-40 per high school cluster pattern. Clairemont has two high school clusters – Madison and Clairemont, so a maximum of 80 families would likely be offered enrollment.

“This is going to pull kids from Kearny, from Mission Bay, even Scripps Ranch. This is a disaster for every community that has issues,” Snyder said. “Even the ones that have high-scoring schools are going to suffer, because this is the cream of the crop. It’s worse for us, because it sits right in our line of sight.”

Snyder is frustrated that the school district did not invest in Clairemont to create a school on the site where families would be eager to send their children.

“Odds are, your kid is not going to High Tech High. It’s going to sit there and remind you of what could have been,” Snyder said.

A large number of families in Clairemont use the school choice option to enroll their children in higher-performing schools outside of the neighborhood. Snyder said kids who don’t successfully choice out of their neighborhood school, and also don’t get selected by the HTH lottery, would feel like losers for having to stay at their neighborhood school. (Full disclosure: My son attends elementary school in Clairemont.)

School board member John Lee Evans said the district is “not trying to eliminate choice to other district schools or to charters. Rather, we believe that we can improve schools in such areas as Clairemont that will result in almost all parents sending their kids to the neighborhood school.”

The timeline for an HTH school opening on the Hale site is unknown. Horizon has a short-term lease through 2032, which includes a termination clause with five years’ notice. Midori Wong, director of special projects for San Diego Unified, said the new owner and the current tenant would determine the future terms of the lease.

School board trustee Scott Barnett, who was not present for the vote, has opposed the plan to plug the district’s budget gap by selling off excess property.

Barnett said Horizon has spent about $3 million on site improvements. Before the board approved putting the property up for sale, Barnett had suggested carving out a piece of the property to use as a park and sports fields to maintain the community benefit created by Horizon’s investment in a lighted football field.

Any public school on the Hale site will face further scrutiny due to safety concerns, Barnett said. A 2007 map of the property clearly shows a Navy fuel line easement. While the property was in escrow with a previous bidder that fell through, it was discovered that the fuel line exceeds the easement, Barnett said. “I have to say, as a board member, I would have serious questions about putting any educational use with public school kids on a property with a potential significant hazard on it.”

The jet fuel pipeline runs from Point Loma to Miramar, crossing earthquake faults and environmentally sensitive areas like San Diego Bay and Tecolote Canyon. It has become exposed in some places over the years due to corrosion, and residents worry that it could rupture.

San Diego Unified intends to sell more excess property, but has applied to the state Department of Education for a waiver in order to have more flexibility in the process. Instead of selling to the highest bidder at public auction, the district would take requests for proposals and be able to select a bidder based on the most desirable project. Because the state won’t meet again until March, the waiver would like not apply to the Hale property, unless it fell out of escrow with HTH Learning. But, the waiver could apply to two other district-owned properties that are currently for sale.

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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