December 5, 2003

Sweetwater School District Answers San Ysidro Parent’s Questions

By Raymond R. Beltrán

As a group of San Ysidro High School parents continue to put pressure on the Sweet-water Union High School District, district officials are planning to make up for miscalculations and misunderstandings between them and the San Ysidro community by encouraging parents to take charge in the decision making process.

Monday evening, December 1, concerned parents of San Ysidro High School’s (SYHS) students held an official public forum with the school district in order to question the stagnant state of construction at the high school, which began over a year ago. Parents addressed issues such as the lack of a sufficient cafeteria, proper weather protection for all students, and funding sources, which were supposed to parallel the now complete Otay Ranch High School. SYHS Principal Hector Espinoza conducted a power point presentation indicating costs of construction, land, roadwork, cost inflation, and legal fees needed to condemn the area where the school now stands.

According to the Sweetwa-ter Union High School District (SUHSD), the beginning stages of planning for what was originally Otay Mesa High School were matters of struggling over buying the property in San Ysidro and scrounging up the dollars to bring the plan into fruition.

“It was difficult to find a 52-acre piece of land,” says Superintendent Edward Brand. “The landowner was not wanting to sell, so, we had to go through a legal procedure called a condemnation process, which consisted of a judge and two jury trials. It delayed the construction and it was costly.”

Due to miscalculations, on the school district’s part, the land chosen for a school site was originally supposed to cost $2.1 million in 1998. Today, the school has poured over $6.1 million into unexpected cost inflations over the past five years. Construction costs have been $5.8 million over budget, and the cost of legal fees have put a significant dent in the school district’s budget. The condemnation process has cost the district $900,000 in legal fees. The San Ysidro High School project was originally supposed to only cost $49 million, but up-to-date “cost assumptions” presented by Principal Espinoza accounted for $52.8 million having been spent on what SYHS students and parents see now, including roadwork and cost inflation. This is what the district is calling the completion of Phase I.

Parents, such as Christina Alamillo, Susana Torres, Yolanda Hernandez, Alicia Torres, and Manuel Hernandez among others, have implored for a better understanding of the funding situation compared to that of Otay Ranch High School. What had began as the district’s game of numbers, legal semantics, and misunderstandings is becoming more of a clear and understandable issue of the stagnation of progress, with the district having attended the first of many public forums with parents, instead of without them.

“My biggest concern is some form of shading,” said parent Christina Alamillo to the SUHSD about the lack of appropriate weather protection for students. “It does get cold, and it does get hot. How long do you think that [provisional tent] is going to last out there? I truly don’t think waiting until 2005 is acceptable.”

Parents like Alamillo are frustrated with the district over the unparallel state of progress between Otay Ranch and San Ysidro high schools, but the district attributes the problem to the type of funding provided by the state.

Lillian Leopold, SUHSD Director of Grants, explains that in gathering funding sources, SYHS is a project funded from various sources. The Department of General Services (DGS Reports), found on-line previously, indicates that the state has released to the County Treasury $38 million, of which $37 million came from a “normal state construction grant” and Proposition BB monies. But according to Leopold, the DGS Reports only indicate one source of funding. There has been $15 million granted from the Hardship Fund and $15.2 million from Mello-Roos funds. The amount of funds that have been accumulated from various sources far surpass the amount spent on the school, which is the reason behind parent’s frustration. To them, if the school has money left over, then why is the school still without a cafeteria, multi-purpose building, or a performing art’s space?

Leopold and other district officials claim that in accepting money from the state of California, they had to submit to stringent spending guidelines, one being a spending cap of $47.2 million total. Now, because the school didn’t account for cost inflations in 1998, they have surpassed the spending cap. In completing Phase I, the state will recognize the school as complete after having conducted a thorough evaluation of the campus and its costs. The school district will hold onto the remaining funds (approximately $12 million), and when the state has completed its evaluation, which has a deadline in 2005, SUHSD says they will then complete the San Ysidro High School campus as they, parents and students included, see fit. This is what they title Phase II. In the event that the state penalizes the school district for overspending, they, the state, will confiscate the remainder of the funds. The school district says they have not planned that far ahead, but will most likely call for an appeal if they are penalized.

“Otay Ranch was paid for one-hundred percent from Mello-Roos money,” says Leopold. “We didn’t have to ask the state, or the Hardship Fund for money. We had all that money to spend at once … This school [SYHS] is going to be the largest investment in the community, costing $65 million worth of a school. I understand people are frustrated, but we want to work within the letter of the law. We want to keep the money we fought for, and we don’t want to give it back to the state.”

San Ysidro High School, under the auspices of the Sweetwater Union High School District, should be part of the Mello-Roos community, but when asked why it wasn’t funded the same way as Otay Ranch, the district replied that only a quarter of the San Ysidro community pay the Mello-Roos tax and that the tax is imposed exclusively on newly constructed communities, giving new buyers the choice to pay or not join the community. In contradiction, under the Mello-Roos plan, an existing community that has two-thirds voter support can officially create a Community Facilities District (CFD). This district has all the “privileges of a legally sanctioned governmental body,” entitling it to create museums, elementary schools, libraries, parks, and schools like Otay Ranch High School. Leopold replies that San Ysidro was not given the choice to join the community, as weren’t other established communities in the South Bay, because the district, along with developers, would have had to ask all existing community members of the area whether or not they’d want to be responsible for paying the 25-year long tax.

With the remaining funds needed to complete the San Ysidro High School campus, the question concerning everyone now is whether the school needs a cafeteria or a performing arts space. During Principal Espinoza’s presentation, he vowed to take into consideration each and every suggestion, concern, and complaint from students as well as parents in future decisions for the school.

To concerned parents, the school district needs a more open door policy during the decision making process to avoid future misunderstandings. Parents that attended the meeting Monday night displayed passionate interest in the academic paths of all of their children attending San Ysidro High School.

“In the second phase, I’d like to have parents involved,” says SYHS parent Susana Torres. “We need our children protected. We can’t have them standing in the rain. The same money was given to both school sites, and Otay Ranch was completed. Let us get involved to see what’s best for our kids.”

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