It’s Not Elementary in Tustin

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Monday, Aug. 15, 2011 | The city of Tustin and the Tustin Unified School District are feuding again, this time over a recently constructed elementary school that the district now plans to use as a continuation high school.

City officials contend that the school district overstepped its authority when it decided to temporarily use Heritage School as something other than an elementary school. They also say the school district duped area residents, who have been paying a special property tax that they thought was going toward a new elementary school.

“It’s a classic bait and switch,” said Mayor Jerry Amante.

School district officials say they are only reacting to the slowdown in residential construction. Heritage School was built to accommodate elementary students from new residential development at the city’s former Marine Corps air station. But only some of the neighborhoods have been built, generating a total of 78 elementary students who would attend Heritage, a school district official said.

Because of the low number of students, the district opted not to open the elementary school this fall. Instead, students from Hillview High School, a continuation high school in North Tustin, and Sycamore High School, will be moved to the Heritage site.

District spokesman Mark Eliot insists that the arrangement is temporary. “That school was built as an elementary, designed as an elementary, and one day it will be an elementary,” Eliot said.

The dispute is on its way to court. City Council members this month unanimously voted to file a lawsuit against the school district for failing to obtain city permission to change Heritage’s use. The lawsuit will also argue that the school district failed to prepare a new traffic study, required by state law, to analyze the impact of using Heritage as a continuation high school.

It is the latest chapter in an conflict between the city and the school district. The two sued each other last year because of a disagreement over grading permits, and officials on both sides acknowledge that relations have become strained.

“It’s too bad if there’s some old blood there affecting some decisions. I don’t think it’s on our side,” Eliot said.

“It’s like an ancient feud, but that has nothing to do with this,” said Amante.

The federal government transferred the 10-acre Heritage School site to the school district in 2003 with the understanding that an elementary school would be built there. The city is the redevelopment authority for the former base, and any changes to the use of the land must first be approved by city, according to city correspondence to the school district.

Heritage’s construction was financed through a special-district tax paid by the residents of the neighborhood, which is called Columbus Square. City officials say the school district is underestimating the school’s enrollment numbers. And even if the district’s estimate is correct, the switch is unfair to the area’s taxpayers, city officials say.

They argue that the current situation is an example of the school district catering to the wealthier residents of North Tustin, an unincorporated territy outside the city, at the expense of the lower-income residents of Tustin. They point to the planned construction of tennis courts at Hillview as reason for their suspicions.

“They want to move that continuation school [Hillview] because they’ve got tennis courts to build. It’s abusive of the taxpayers, but that’s their plan,” Amante said of the five-member school board, three of which come from North Tustin. “You can look how they behave and to whom they feel beholden.”

School district officials say that North Tustin schools receive no special treatment. They say more money is spent on schools in other parts of the district, and they point to improvements, like new activity centers at middle schools in the city.

“It’s simply not true. We spend just as much money at Tustin High as we do at Foothill High [in North Tustin],” said school board President Lynn Davis, a North Tustin resident.

Eliot said moving kids from other schools to Heritage would require an entire overhaul of some Tustin schools. Staffing, classes, and education programs would have to be reorganized to move more than 200 students needed to open Heritage.

“That’s not something that the board has even discussed,” Eliot said.

The estimated number of elementary students living in Columbus Square also includes 25 children at the homeless and county’s housing facilities, Eliot said.

Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in the area, is not happy about the school’s failure to open. The shelter houses 23 elementary students that could be attending the school, Palmer said.

Palmer says his complaint is that the school district suddenly announced the decision not to open the school without consulting local residents or other stakeholders.

“This first time we hear it’s not going to be an elementary school is when we read an article in the [Orange County] Register,” Palmer said.

Eliot blames the city for the school’s failure to open. The master developer woithdrew from the residential project at the former base, leaving some construction in limbo. Eliot says the city could have been more creative in finding ways to restart development.

“Didn’t the city let us down?” Eliot said. “If the city didn’t fail to develop the base, we would not be having this conversation.”

The development project, known as Tustin Legacy, is supposed to eventually include about 4,600 homes, though some of those homes fall within Irvine Unified School District, according to a city official. About half the homes are already built.

About 735 homes have been built at Columbus Square so far, according to a city official, and more than 300 are still under construction.

“It’s completely disingenuous and totally inaccurate that the city hasn’t been pursuing that development,” Amante said.

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