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Voters were told Memorial Preparatory Middle School in Logan Heights would get remodeled with bond money. Instead, the campus will get demolished and entirely rebuilt to serve middle- and high-schoolers for a cool $100 million or more.

How is such a switcheroo possible? The answer lies in broad ballot language that appears to give the district leeway to make such a change.

San Diego voters approved two bond measures since 2008, Propositions S and Z, worth $4.9 billion combined, giving the district power to levy extra taxes and issue debt to pay for critical school repairs, student technology devices and other school enhancements.

Memorial Prep has already received technology infrastructure upgrades and was set to get a whole-site modernization, which would have added new plumbing, fencing, interior and exterior building repairs and kitchen and restroom renovations, among other things.

A close look at the ballot language for S and especially Z reveals large gaping allowances for new school construction.

One section of the bond measure allows the district to spend money to build new school facilities to accommodate student enrollment and growth.

But Memorial Prep doesn’t have burgeoning enrollment — in fact it struggled so much to fill the space it had, it now shares the campus with two K-8 schools, Logan Elementary and a charter school, King-Chavez Academy of Excellence. (How the rebuild will ultimately affect those schools isn’t totally clear. School board trustee Richard Barrera has said both will likely have to go. District staff is recommending King-Chavez’s charter be renewed Tuesday night.)

Another site where district officials want to put a new school, the Civita development in Mission Valley, may be easier to rationalize due to the influx of new residents to the area, although surrounding schools are under-enrolled.

Still, the Prop. Z ballot presented to voters in 2012 gave the district a few other openings large enough to fit the Memorial Prep overhaul — and others should the district choose.

Prop. Z says the district may spend bond money at any or all schools to “Remove or replace old or inadequate buildings with new facilities,” or to “Improve or construct school buildings, facilities, parking lots, and structures to meet the needs at neighborhood schools.”

If those holes aren’t wide enough, a passage at the end of both bond measures makes it clear the board has a lot of discretion when it comes to building new schools.

Both the S and Z ballots read, “For any project involving renovation, repair or rehabilitation of a building or the major portion of a building, the District shall be authorized to proceed with new replacement construction instead (including any necessary demolition), if the Board of Education determines that replacement and new construction is more practical than rehabilitation and renovation, considering the building’s age, condition, expected remaining life, comparative cost, and other relevant factors.”

So there you have it. If the school board believes it’s more practical to demolish and rebuild, let the bulldozers roll and give the bond fund the bill.

District officials are undeterred by their track record at Lincoln High School — another facility rebuilt with $129 million in bond money in the hope of setting the still-struggling campus straight.

The district does not guarantee every project put before voters will get completed, and districts regularly do not finish — necessitating another bond. Thus far, items that took top billing on San Diego Unified’s ballots — like asbestos removal and structural repairs — have taken a backseat to new technology and athletic stadiums.

It’s still unclear what projects would get pushed further down the line or fall off the list altogether as a result of the Memorial Prep rebuild, which officials hope to finish by fall 2019.

A revised bond spending plan is expected to go before the San Diego Unified school board Tuesday, Dec. 1, which may shed some light.

Ashly McGlone

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

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