Despite Property Selloffs, San Diego Unified Eyes New School

Education

No Money, No Students, No Problem? District Eyes New Mission Valley School

Two big questions emerge from the district's moves to buy a piece of land in Mission Valley: Why a new school now? And why Mission Valley?

At a time when San Diego Unified is selling off properties to balance the books, it has quietly entered into negotiations to buy a piece of land where it can build a school in Mission Valley – a community surrounded by under-capacity schools.

In late September, the school board voted to appraise the land, and within the past few weeks the board greenlighted negotiations with developer Sudberry Properties.

They’ve yet to work out a price, and the deal is far from inked. But a vision for the school has already been sketched out.

The school would serve residents around the Civita development, a 238-acre pocket of land laid on top of an old gravel quarry in Mission Valley.

Marco Sessa, vice president for Sudberry Properties who has helped plan and develop Civita since work began in 2002, said the idea is to build a high-tech elementary school with space for 600 students.

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.

That’s great for Sudberry: A quality local school is good for property values, especially when you’re selling single-family homes meant for young families. And all the better if it’s a school built around a unique concept that attracts parents.

“I think the district sees a possibility for how schools can be built, and they want to try it out on us. So that’s kind of exciting,” Sessa said.

Indeed, selling to San Diego Unified would be even better for Sudberry than selling to one of the several charter schools, like High Tech High and Albert Einstein Academy, that have been interested in the spot.

Charter school attendance could mean enrollment is based on a lottery that draws from various ZIP codes across the city. Even if the Civita school proved successful and attracted parents to the surrounding neighborhood, there’s no guarantee that a kid living down the street could get in.

“So when you’re talking about sustainability and reduced miles traveled and all the things that we’re hoping to accomplish with Civita, the charter school just didn’t seem like it would be the right fit in some ways,” Sessa said.

A traditional district school means an attendance boundary is drawn, and kids living within that area are ushered into the neighborhood school.

“Honestly, we believe in the vision of the i21 concept,” Sessa said. “It feels like the right fit to try something new with that concept. And of course, if successful, it would give us great PR to say that we’re doing something new for the district.”

Having a sparkling, innovative district school is a slam-dunk for the developer. Whether it’s the best decision for the district, though, is less clear. Out of 10 elementary schools in the Kearny cluster – the area where the new school would be located – nine are under-enrolled, based on numbers the district provided.

Five of them have more than 100 extra seats. That’s about three classes. There’s even been talk over the years of closing some to conserve resources if enrollment didn’t tick up.

A new school in Mission Valley could siphon kids who would have otherwise been funneled into one of the existing schools, said Amy Redding, chair of a district-level advisory committee and parent in the Kearny cluster.

“In the Kearny cluster, every kid counts,” she said. “And if the district is going to build a new concept school in Mission Valley, it’s just going to make it that much harder. How are schools going to fight that beast?”

Redding is angry Kearny parents haven’t been involved in the conversation thus far – especially considering the direct impact a new school could have on neighborhood school dynamics.

“On this whole deal, there are so many angles that are bad: not bringing the community into the conversation, questionable use of resources, and the district not following through on its own mandate to support existing neighborhood schools,” Redding said.

When I initially asked district spokesperson Ursula Kroemer about the district’s short- and long-term plans to build new schools, she emailed this response:

“I do not believe there are any short-term plans to build more schools – it’s really more making sure we offer the best programs in our existing schools and take good care of them from a facilities perspective that they are and remain the quality neighborhood schools consistent with our community-based reform plan.”

When I returned to Kroemer about a week later, she said that she hadn’t been aware of Civita when I first asked. That illustrates how incongruent a new addition would be with the district’s previous messages.

The deal would represent a marked shift in another way, too. For the past few years, San Diego Unified has been aggressively selling its land to make up for budget shortfalls – including some highly coveted properties the district will never recoup. That’s still happening. In the midst of the sales, it is now considering buying more real estate even though it hasn’t yet made up for a shortfall. That deficit has remained even after the district raised taxes for bonds and the state sent additional funds.

Trustee Kevin Beiser, whose sub-district the new school would fall into, didn’t return a request for comment. Along with former school board member Scott Barnett, Beiser in September voted against an appraisal of the Civita property. But Sessa said Beiser has been supportive of the proposal in private conversations.

Superintendent Cindy Marten confirmed that negotiations have begun on the Civita site, but said she couldn’t yet talk publicly in greater detail.

So the big questions are: Why a new school now? And why Mission Valley?

‘Cindy Wants to Compete With Charter Schools’

It’s been a slog for Sudberry to get a school in Civita. It’s wanted one since planning began in 2002. Bringing in a school, Sessa said, is less about turning a profit as it about building a sustainable community.

The land is still owned by the Grants, a family that includes two retired teachers who’ve hoped their land would one day include a school.

Sessa said that after the Grants partnered with Sudberry 15 years ago, he went about trying to make that happen. He approached San Diego Unified a number of times over the years, seeking support for a new district school, but said each time he was rebuffed.

“They kept saying they weren’t interested, that the demographics didn’t support it. Around 2006 or 2007, we kind of gave up trying, to be frank,” Sessa said.

So what happened?

Sessa can’t say for sure. It may be simply, as Sessa said, “Cindy isn’t the previous administration.” He guessed Marten could have also been impressed by research from Julie Cramer, a USD senior researcher whom Sudberry enlisted to look at population projections. Her numbers show that between 2010 and 2020, the number of school-aged children in Mission Valley will increase five-fold.

Sessa gave me those numbers, which are based on 2010 census data. The district hasn’t yet provided demographic information that shows a new Mission Valley school is justified.

In any case, when Sessa spoke with Marten last summer, Albert Einstein Academy was interested in the land. Einstein Academy operates two sought-after charter schools, one in Grant Hill and another in South Park. At the time, they were eyeing Civita as the spot for a new elementary school.

When he told Marten about the vision for the school and about Einstein’s interest, she said, “Gosh, you know, I’d kind of like a district school there,” Sessa recalled.

So Marten had a talk with David Sciarretta, Einstein Academy’s executive director. After that, it was settled: The district would move forward on the property. Einstein Academy would not.

I asked Sciarretta if he felt Marten muscled him out of the deal. He said it wasn’t like that. It was cordial. “These things happen all the time. Deals fall through,” he said.

“Remember, Sudberry has a big a role in this,” he said. “They get to decide who they want to go with. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy story here. I think it’s a story about a partnership with a great community. The district saw that this was a great opportunity and they wanted to get in on the ground floor.”

If nothing else, Einstein could have given Marten an incentive to act quickly. A charter school was looking to move into Mission Valley and establish a new school built around a new concept. Instead, Marten and the district want to do something very similar. After all, if charter schools can innovate and think outside the box, why can’t the district?

“I think Cindy wants to compete with charter schools,” Sessa said.

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