City Ups the Ante

I woke up this Saturday morning to peruse my overnight Facebook and Twitter feeds and found this little tidbit on the the City of Tustin Facebook Page

Tustin is concerned that the residents of Columbus Grove have not been informed by TUSD of the Heritage facility change so we mailed this informational piece. Instead of opening the elementary school that the residents are paying for, TUSD has moved Hillview Continuation School to the site to make room for Tennis Courts at Foothill. TUSD admits they don’t know how long Hillview will remain and do not have a new site identified. Residents, contact cityscene@tustinca.org to be added to the informational update list.

Columbus Grove MailerIt was accompanied by a slick pamphlet mailer that outlined the city’s position in the most current lawsuit they have filed against Tustin Unified School District. This is the second lawsuit in as many years between the city and the district. According to the mailer, the city was “forced to file a lawsuit against TUSD fo defend the rights of our citizens to have the school they are paying for.”  According to the city Public Information Officer, the mailer was only mailed to the residents of Columbus Square, which is one of the tracts on the old MCAS. The residents there pay a Mello-Roos tax that funds the school and some infrastructure in the area (We are still waiting to hear from her on the cost of the mailer to the taxpayer).

In the meantime, housing went into a slump, the master developer for the base property pulled out when they could not see a near future profit and the city took over the job of master developer, hoping to market smaller sections of the land and make some other adjustments that would make it easier for developers to build and sell. It is too early to tell if this was a smart move by the city or just another power grab by the council majority. Councilmember Deborah Gavello was the only member to vote against the city acting as master developer. She has not answered any inquiries from us concerning this matter (or any other, in fact).

The mailer appears to be an early move by the city to position itself favorably. Judging from the bad press from the other ongoing lawsuit between the city and TUSD, this is probably a wise move. However, the mailer exaggerates a few of its complaints against TUSD and does not fully explain the entire situation. For example, the mailer fails to explain the TUSD claim that Hillview would have opened with only 78 students rather than the 300-350 it claims it needs to make the school viable. It also alludes that TUSD could have spent the money on building permanent buildings at existing schools that now house classes in portable schoolrooms. That is incorrect, according to the district. TUSD received federal funding and other considerations that required them to build Heritage or return the funding. Knowing that the “historic recession” (we would put that another way) would not last forever and that construction would eventually restart at the former base, TUSD chose to go ahead with construction of schools to eventually serve the area.

Tustin projects over 200 Hillview students and teachers will be driving to the site each day, impacting local traffic and parking as the parking lot can only accommodate 130 vehicles. TUSD argues that, based on experience, most of the students at Hillview do not or will not drive or park at Heritage. So far, that seems to be the case as the new school session opened this week and the parking lot appeared not to be impacted. And 200 people driving to and from the school each day is hardly a traffic concern around here.

The real issue is whether you believe the city’s justification for the lawsuit when it says, “Meanwhile, the Hillview Continuation School site will be converted into tennis courts for North Tustin and Foothill High School.” TUSD has stated emphatically that, while tennis courts are part of the plan, it has no intention of tearing down Hillview and instead will be renovating the site. Once renovations are complete, it will again use Hillview for its intended purpose. The district further states that, once construction begins on the base again, it will reopen Hillview for its intended purpose as an elementary school.

The city may have a point. TUSD has changed the wording it uses when referring to the temporary use of Heritage. In the beginning, TUSD said that the maximum time it would use Heritage for alternative purposes would be two years. It is now saying that it will be used “temporarily” without stating a maximum time frame. On their Facebook page, the City of Tustin also alleges a former school superintendent told the city 3 years ago that the plan was to use Heritage as a replacement continuation school all along. Of course, if that is the case, why didn’t the city say something then? The residents of Columbus Square have a valid complaint if they are paying for a school that will not be used for its intended purpose even if near projected attendance increases to the levels the school district says it needs to support the school.

In the meantime, the taxpayer is on the hook for another lawsuit between sovereign entities. The taxpayer is paying for both sides of this argument in legal fees and costs. Tustin can claim TUSD must comply with city requirements for grading permits and other fees. They can even, as they appear to be doing, change their ordinance that previously exempted the school district from obtaining permits from the city for construction.Tustin is relying on California Government Code section 53097 as the basis for the argument. Section 53097 requires a school district to comply with “…any city or county regulation” regarding the review of grading plans. It does not require compliance with city and county regulations regarding the actual grading, however. Section 53097 also lets the city and county off the hook should the school district refuse to comply with any of their regulations as it holds the city harmless for any damage done. This is the argument that TUSD has used all along. If that is the case, there is probably a preemption issue that will be sorted out by the courts. By the way, TUSD has been very forthcoming about the entire issue concerning this lawsuit and the lawsuit over grading permits. You can find most of their side of this story here. The most current press release regarding the Heritage lawsuit can be found here. Tustin says TUSD has been uncooperative and uncommunicative, TUSD says the same of the city. Judging from the documentation presented by both sides, we lean toward TUSD.

This bare-knuckle fight between the City of Tustin and the Tustin Unified School District has gone on for too long. It is time for both sides to stop the rhetoric and sit down at the table to resolve their differences. State mediators and arbitrators are available that can help resolve the issues at hand. Unfortunately, this is starting to feel like another power grab by Mayor Jerry Amante. He was fuming when he found out the city had an ordinance exempting the school district from obtaining permits. So much so that he introduced  an  “emergency” ordinance to change that. Fortunately, the rest of the council did not buy into Jerry’s version of “emergency”. Unfortunately, the ordinance  revision was eventually approved as a regular measure. But, as we said before, there is probably a state preemption that will take precedence.

With all this fighting between the city and the school district, it seems strange to read one item on the City of Tustin website that says, “Tustin Loves Schools“.

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About Jeff Gallagher

My day job is a peace officer for the 2nd largest law enforcement agency in Orange County. I live in and love Tustin where my family and I have resided for the past 17 years. I am a highly moderate libertarian that despises hardcore Republicans, Democrats and anyone else who is not willing to compromise for the good of the people.

Posted on September 5, 2011, in Local Government, orange county, Politics, state government and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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