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Court: San Diego Unified Doesn’t Have to Pay Back the Millions it Illegally Spent on Field Lights

San Diego Unified won’t have to refund its bond account for the $2.6 million illegally spent on stadium lights at five high schools, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Thursday [1].

Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending, a grassroots nonprofit formed by residents near Hoover High School, successfully challenged the field lights [2] at Hoover, Clairemont, Madison, Morse and University City high schools in 2013.

An appellate court at the time agreed that the lights weren’t sufficiently disclosed to voters on the 2008 ballot for the $2.1 billion Proposition S bond measure, nor were the parking and traffic impacts of the lights adequately studied by the district.

The case was sent back to a trial court, which barred the district from spending any more Proposition S bond money on field lights, but did nothing about the millions already improperly spent [3], so the taxpayer group appealed.

This time around, the same panel of appellate court judges ruled in favor of the district on the grounds that the initial lawsuit [4] and proceedings did not focus on past field light expenses, only future ones:

“As District argues, Taxpayers’s first amended complaint did not, expressly or implicitly, contain any allegations that would support an award of monetary relief for any unlawful expenditure of Proposition S bond proceeds. On the contrary, that complaint sought only prospective relief to prevent future wrongful spending by District for construction of field lighting not specifically listed in Proposition S.”

The trial court was right to deny efforts to add the words “repay” and “restitution” to the complaint in 2014, the appellate court added.

District Spokeswoman Linda Zintz said the district could have been proven right even without the timing issues the court focused on in its decision.

“If the district had been given the opportunity, we had several solid defenses, including statute of limitation and separation of powers that could have been raised to defeat the claim,” Zintz said.

“The thought that San Diego Unified can illegally spend money without recourse and a remedy flies in the face of common sense and everything we were taught about fairness and justice – that there is a remedy for every wrong,” Ron Anderson, president of Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending, said in a statement. “The thought that the courts will continue to allow the illegal expenditures to remain, as if nothing wrong happened, is appalling.”

Attorney Craig Sherman, who represented the taxpayer group, said a decision about whether to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court or whether to file a separate action for damages has not yet been made.

“These guys should not get away with not repaying these funds,” Sherman said. “We don’t believe that’s a proper way to read a complaint. We don’t feel justice has been done here, but if they want to pin it on the pleading. … It’s a good lesson to learn.”

The 2013 appellate decision sets precedent for other districts [5] by strengthening the Proposition 39 requirement that bond funds be spent only on projects clearly listed on the ballot’s bond project list. Simply mentioning a project more generally of the ballot, as San Diego Unified did, isn’t always enough.