Earlier this week, my colleague Ashly McGlone broke down San Diego Unified’s plans for the next couple of years of bond spending.
Thanks to two voter-approved construction bonds, the district will be able to spend about $5 billion on school construction, repairs and technology.
Two pieces of good news from McGlone’s story: The district has so far exhausted only $1 billion of its total bond money, and a recent performance audit says that the money is going to projects the district promised.
Now for the not-so-good news: A large share of that money has gone to student technology, and athletic stadiums and ribbon-cutting projects have taken priority over urgently needed but unsexy repairs, like leaky roofs and asbestos removal.
The latest forecast calls for about $800 million in spending that will go toward major repairs, air conditioners in schools districtwide, swimming pools and track and field projects.
Not included in that $800 million, though, is the construction of two new schools, both of which look likely to happen.
This November, district officials unveiled (sort of) their plan to rebuild Memorial Prep in a meeting at the Logan Heights library. While specifics on the school have yet to be ironed out, trustee Richard Barrera said the rebuild will run $100 million, at least. That would make it one of the largest and most expensive projects on a single school site to come out of these two construction bonds.
And district officials are eyeing a piece of property in the Civita development, a 238-acre pocket of land laid on top of an old gravel quarry in Mission Valley. After a couple of different charter schools expressed interest in building a new school on the property, San Diego Unified moved in on it.
Since then, a number of people from the community, either living in Mission Valley or considering a move, have emailed asking about the school’s status. So I checked in with Marco Sessa, vice president for Sudberry Properties, who has helped plan and develop Civita since work began in 2002.
Question: “Do you know if the school in Civita has been approved and if so when it might be built?” – Abbe Long, curious reader
No, the school district hasn’t yet approved the school. But the district has been moving forward on it.
Over the past several months, school board members have had a couple closed-session meetings about the plans for the school – one in which they voted to appraise the property, and later, to notify the State Department of Education so it can help determine whether the land is a good place to build a school.
Sessa expects the project to go before the school board in the next few months, at which point trustees will vote on a package that will include a preliminary design and rough construction costs. Then, we’ll have a better idea of how construction costs factor into the district’s budget.
Last year, Sessa told me the idea is to build a high-tech elementary school with space for 600 students (including preschoolers):
The building would have a contemporary, urban feel to it, he said. It would be two, maybe three stories tall. Classrooms would have movable walls, allowing teachers to open rooms into larger spaces. The land is next to a 17-acre park, “so it will have great synergy with that space,” Sessa said.
The building would be constructed with i21 in mind, the district’s $500 million tech rollout that equips classrooms with the latest gadgetry. Instead of laying new technology on top of decades-old classrooms, the school would be built for the 21st century from the ground up.
Sessa said that’s still the hope. The district wouldn’t necessarily have to keep to that vision if they purchase the property, but if negotiations moves forward, Sessa’s hoping Civita developers will have some say in the final project.
That is, he’s hoping if the district buys the land, it actually builds a school, instead of, say, a storage facility or something. And preferably, the school would have an urban design in keeping with the rest of the development. You know, so it looks nice. But having some say in the final project may end up being as challenging as negotiating a purchase price.
So, in short, while the school is moving forward, it’s not yet a sure thing,
“I learned early on in real estate that until the check is in the bank, you don’t go celebrating,” Sessa said.
The school’s costs aren’t factored into the most recent two-year project list, but funds will likely come from bond money, which allows for new schools (really in any area the district wants to build them). When taxpayers voted on the bonds, the 100-page project list looked incredibly detailed. And legally, the district has to stick to this list.
But the language of that ballot list was written vaguely enough to allow for wiggle room. And for a number of projects, voters complained the district has taken liberties with that wiggle room.
Swimming pools, for instance, were mentioned in the report, but parents were surprised when they took priority over needed repairs and construction. When the district built new stadiums and field lights, neighbors cried bait-and-switch.
And that sums up what’s probably been the most common complaint with the way the district has gone about spending this bond money. It’s not that people have problems with the projects, necessarily (Except for the stadium lights. Residents really, really did not like those stadium lights). It’s more that a lot of taxpayers feel their expectations for where that money would be spent – and in what order – don’t match the district’s priorities.
At the town hall meeting where officials first announced their vision for Memorial Prep, Julie Martel, who works with the facilities and planning department and helps drive the district’s Vision 2020 plan, said, “I know from experience that when things start happening behind the scenes, that’s when people get upset.”
There may be good reason for not doing everything out in the open. It’s reasonable (and legal) to not disclose details about real estate negotiations before they’re finalized. But early, behind-the-scenes conversations about Memorial Prep were happening between City Councilman David Alvarez and trustee Richard Barrera long before most people knew about the rebuild. That doesn’t make the Memorial Prep rebuild a bad idea. But it doesn’t build public confidence.
We can say the same for the school in Civita. In this case, the early conversations were happening between developers and Superintendent Cindy Marten, who thought Civita sounded like a good place for a new district school.
Sessa said he’s invited the public to weigh in on the school in a number of town hall meetings and in conversations with Mission Valley’s community planning group. He says the feedback has been mostly positive.
Ed Reads of the Week
Who knew? Kevin Bradshaw, principal of King-Chavez Community High School, is also a local basketball hero. In 1991, he scored 71 points in a single game against Loyola Marymount.
Of course, that was before the college he played for, U.S. International University, went bankrupt. But Bradshaw’s legacy might outlast his schools. To this day, he retains an NCAA scoring record.
• California’s List of Bad Schools Posted Again (The Sacramento Bee)
The California Department of Education didn’t want to post a list of bad schools. But it had to. Because it’s the law.
The state’s 2010 open enrollment law requires the department to list 1,000 “low-achieving schools” by Jan. 1 of each year and allows parents of children in those schools to move them to better schools.
Dan Walters explains:
Late last year, the department, which is directed by state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson, posted a notice on its website that it would not release a list of the schools because the “academic performance index” on which the list was based had been suspended.
That action, which was not announced publicly, drew fire from state Sen. Bob Huff and school improvement groups, which threatened to sue.
Last week, just days before Jan. 1 deadline, Torlakson’s department altered its notice and posted the previous 1,000-school list, based on 2013 tests, that parents could use to exercise their open enrollment option. Here is a link to a spreadsheet of the list.
Twenty-two of those schools are in San Diego Unified, for what it’s worth.
• Do We Have to Send Our Kids to a Bad Public School? (New York Times Magazine)
Speaking of bad schools, a parent in this column wrestles with an ethical quandary: He and his wife volunteer at their neighborhood school and support the community. But their neighborhood school puts up bad test scores, and they don’t feel confident it’s the right fit for their kid. Where should their allegiances lie?
The Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has an answer:
“You don’t owe it to all the other children in your neighborhood to give their interests the same weight as their parents do. Your special obligations are to your own child …There’s no recognizably human world where parents treat their own children the same as everyone else’s.”
The comment section on the article is also worth a read.