Correction: The original version of this story cited Stuart Markey as saying that other bond projects could be delayed if the school district moved forward on the charter school. Markey said that projects could be delayed because of dropping property values, which are unrelated to the question of whether or not to pursue the library project. The error was due to a misunderstanding. We regret the error.
Thursday, June 18, 2009 | Members of the oversight committee for a $2.1 billion school bond lambasted school officials on Thursday for not giving them a chance to weigh in on a plan to funnel $20 million of the bond proceeds to the city of San Diego's long-stalled downtown library project.
They learned of the plans just days before the Tuesday meeting where the San Diego Unified board is slated to vote on whether to signal its intent to spend $20 million in bond money for a charter school in the nine-story library planned for the East Village. Their criticisms were just one of a torrent of questions that have been raised by critics as the joint city-school district endeavor gained significant momentum this week after months on the backburner.
"The train is coming and we're tied to the track," said oversight committee member Gil Johnson shortly before the committee decided to hold a special meeting Monday to craft a recommendation for the school board.
The proposal to combine a charter school and library is raising questions among more than just oversight committee members. If approved, it could put the school district in the unusual position of creating a district-run charter school and using bond proceeds to build it.
Many questions remain unanswered, including what charter school would occupy the library's sixth and seventh floors, how connected it would be to the school district, and if it would have to comply with a contractual labor agreement hammered out between the district and unions.
Officials will also have to deal with the perception that they're simply grasping at ways to help the city pay for a library that's been long-stalled for a lack of money. In the past few months, the talk has moved from an elementary school to a public high school to a charter high school as different obstacles have sprung forth.
"We clearly believe this switch to a high school and now to a charter high school is simply an effort to save the main library," said Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, "and probably at the pressure of library boosters that may or may not have contributed to the passage of Proposition S."
The proposed letter of intent says the $20 million would be paid over a yet-to-be-determined schedule during construction of the library. In return, the school district would lease the building for 40 years and have the option, after each decade, to buy the two floors. The letter of intent would be nonbinding but would set the stage for a formal contract. A City Council committee will hear the matter Wednesday.
School trustee Richard Barrera, a project supporter, believes the charter high school would create a much-needed local alternative for students in the vicinity of San Diego High School who now travel long distances to attend other schools.
"Creating more high school options in the community is important to me, and I think this would be part of what's going to be an ongoing strategy to create high school options for kids in the San Diego High area," Barrera said.
But trustee John de Beck, whose district includes downtown, said it makes no sense for the district to spend $20 million of its own money to hand over a school to an independent entity in what's so far just a conceptual plan. Charters usually bubble up from a group of parents, teachers or other community members who petition a school board to start a school.
"There's no charter school even in there yet," de Beck said. "There's no one that's organized a charter school, there's no children, nothing. It's just a vacuous decision."
The bond money in question comes from $20 million set aside for a downtown school. Parents and city development planners long believed this would be an elementary school, and a draft of the bond project list referenced a "new downtown elementary school campus."
Lutar said that draft was circulated to community groups that may have supported the bond measure expecting an elementary school to be built. To now build a high school is a bait-and-switch, she said.
By spending $20 million on a high school, de Beck and oversight committee members noted, the district would have no money set aside for an elementary school if East Village grows.
Barrera said the district's nearby elementary schools still have room to accommodate a growing population. He said a high school is a better idea, in part because of the district's plans to create small high schools to prevent dropouts. And he said the district would be hard-pressed to find a cheaper price for the roughly 79,000 square feet of space in that area of town.
"This is a really good value for the district," Barrera said.
The idea of putting a school in the library surfaced late last year, when the city was facing a deadline to keep a $20 million state grant for the library and boosters had struggled to raise enough private contributions.
The Evolution of a Proposal
The school district originally considered putting an elementary school in the library, but state law wouldn't allow an elementary campus on the sixth and seventh floors of a building, so the district instead started exploring the idea of a high school.
But a traditional public school would trigger stricter construction requirements meant to keep students safe in an earthquake and that would have hiked the library's cost by millions. So school and city officials recently began discussing the idea of a charter school, which doesn't have to comply with the stricter building code.
The city still must raise millions of dollars to complete the library, last estimated to cost $185 million in 2005. Library boosters have reported raising $33 million of the $85 million they needed to raise in donations. Even with the school bond money, the project is still $32 million short of the $185 million estimate, not counting the rise in construction costs since then.
A school district attorney recently opined that the bond money could legally be spent to lease space for a charter school.
But even though Prop. S money would be used, city and school officials said the school's inclusion wouldn't require the library to be built under the controversial project labor agreement governing how school bond projects are built.
Barrera said the requirements wouldn't apply because the city is building the library, not the school district, and because the agreement calls for the school district to lease space from the city.
"It has to be construction work," Barrera said. "What the district's paying for from Prop. S money is leasing the space."
Markey told bond oversight committee members that city officials wouldn't agree to the measure if the library had to be built under the project labor agreement, though mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said contractors must be paid a "prevailing wage."
An Atypical Structure
It's unclear how the proposed charter school would be structured. Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive public money and are free to attend. But they are freed from many of the restrictions governing traditional public schools and are run by independent governing boards instead of elected school boards.
Across the country, charter schools were created in large part to compete with public schools and act as an alternative to traditional public schools. And charters sometimes have frosty relationships with the school districts that oversee them.
Most times, a charter operates under a nonprofit organization. But in some cases, the charter board is more closely tied to the school district, which still retains power over decisions such as student expulsions, said Lisa Berlanga, general manager for the San Diego region for the California Charter Schools Association.
Berlanga said there are seven arm-of-the-district charters in San Diego Unified, but she didn't know of any that had actually been created by the district.
Such district-created charter schools are rare because charters don't follow the same rules as traditional public schools, which is "not the way districts are used to doing business," said attorney Greg Moser, who was hired by the charter schools association to weigh in during the bond measure.
Barrera said internal talks have centered on a charter school governing board that would be appointed by members of San Diego Unified's board. How closely the charter would be tied to the school board hasn't been determined, Barrera said. But he's also open to the idea of an existing charter school taking over the space, though none has been identified.
Teachers union President Camille Zombro said she was concerned the board would move forward with an "improperly vetted" and "poorly thought out" plan.
"For both the city and school district, I would be concerned about starting a new thing when you don't even know that you can get the enrollment or have the money to build the thing, staff the thing," she said. "The last thing our schools need are unsustainable, unfunded experiments."
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