The plans for a “Living Lab” to teach kids about the ocean sound like a science teacher’s dream: an 11,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility and a 35,000-square-foot outdoor science lab where students can scope terrariums and a kelp cart, and learn about environmental stewardship.

San Diego Unified has pledged $8 million to build the primary structure, which will come from the district’s Proposition Z fund. The fancy science lab will join other snazzy new sites paid for with bond money, like top-of-the line culinary space, computer labs and TV broadcast studios. The only difference: The Living Lab won’t be built at a school, and will serve as the headquarters for the nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute in City Heights. That means it will be open to members of the public during non-school hours and at no point will the district own the land, nor will it keep the facility taxpayer funds built beyond the 40-year term of the deal.

Whether voters in 2012 understood this was the plan for millions in Proposition Z bond money should matter, said professor Bob Fellmeth, founder and director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law.

“Would the electorate voting for this intend that ‘school site’ means a non-profit entity location? How much of a connection to the school and its students in terms of busing, visits and school time participation would be reasonably required to comply with that intent?” Fellmeth said.

District officials believe they’re on solid legal footing – they point to the ballot’s project list for neighboring Joyner Elementary that calls for the district to “Expand and develop science education facilities to support students for joint-use.” Officials also point to a section of the state Education Code that allows public schools to acquire property through purchase or lease for outdoor science education.

So far, more than $754,000 in Prop. Z money has been spent on the lab’s design. Construction is expected to begin this December and open to visitors in January 2017, a year later than initially planned.

The Living Lab is only one of the latest examples of school bond spending off school grounds greenlit by the school board.

San Diego Unified spent $20 million in bond money to build a charter school in the downtown Central Library. The “schoolbrary” drew criticism for skipping ahead of other projects slated for existing school sites. The district is also forging ahead with a $20 million Pools for Schools plan that would build some pools at nearby YMCA sites and others on campuses. That project is expected to face litigation from a grassroots taxpayer group who say the pools weren’t adequately disclosed to voters on the Proposition Z ballot. The same group successfully challenged the district over its use of bond money to pay for stadium lights.

Former school board member Scott Barnett — a champion of the pools plan — said officials aimed to partially model that arrangement after the Ocean Discovery Institute lease.

The 100-page Prop. Z ballot is peppered with the words “joint use,” and nonprofit leaders said the Living Lab was planned for early on.

“We formed a partnership around the bond and then it passed and we were able to go forward,” said Shara Fisler, executive director and founder of the Ocean Discovery Institute. “It has been extraordinary and it created that critical amount of funding that has been able to really help get us there.”

“We worked for about a year with their attorneys and the bond attorneys to make sure that everything was going to be valuable for now and for the long term as well. It’s been real positive. It’s been a real collaboration,” she said. “I hope it’s a model.”

Currently, Ocean Discovery staff members bring hands-on dissections and gene sequence lessons to the classrooms of local elementary and middle schools in the Hoover cluster, provide field trips to Mission Bay and the Birch Aquarium and host weekend community cleanup events in Manzanita Canyon in City Heights.

Looking at Ocean Discovery’s tax filings and fundraising documents, it’s clear San Diego Unified’s $8 million contribution was a huge coup for the organization, which began in a meager Mission Bay kayak shed in 1999 and now works out of bayside trailers, as well as apartment space in City Heights set to be demolished to make way for the lab. (Fisler told me that some of the reasons the Living Lab won’t actually be at the ocean include the group’s emphasis on coastal protection, so they want to minimize pollution near the coast, and its focus on underserved communities like City Heights.)

Prior to the district money, the organization counted just $7.2 million in total revenue in the last five years combined, including $25,000 that came with a 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Fisler hopes having a bona fide science facility will enable her team to better engage local parents and reach up to four times more people than the 6,000 students currently served each year.

Nonprofit staffers are currently working to raise the last $1.25 million needed for the $15 million project. The district’s money is paying for the Living Lab building, but Ocean Discovery will have to pay for things like equipment, landscaping and other outdoor features.

“Could we do work out of our trailers? Sure,” said Fisler. But at the Living Lab location, “We are physically and ecologically connected to the ocean at that site.”

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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