Santa Ana Draws Flak for Proposal to Give Private School $2.5 Million

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

A proposal for the city of Santa Ana to give $2.5 million to a privately run Catholic high school has triggered criticism from residents who say the money should instead go toward underfunded city services.

Mater Dei High School is requesting the funds to help pay for construction related to the school’s plans to build a 990-space parking garage and a new building that would hold 32 classrooms. The money would be used for public works performed by the city, such as moving utilities and electric poles offsite.

The Santa Ana City Council is scheduled to consider the proposal at Tuesday night’s council meeting. But city leaders have already received an earful of opposition as some residents have balked at the request, arguing that Mater Dei could easily fundraise to pay for the work and that officials shouldn’t be dipping into taxpayer coffers on behalf of a private school.

Update: Mater Dei President Patrick Murphy on Monday morning asked for the funding request to be postponed until a future council meeting. A date has not yet been set. 

Materials attached to the council meeting agenda include 11 emails and letters in opposition to the proposal, but only three communications in support. Meanwhile, a Facebook post by the New Santa Ana blog on the issue received 48 comments, mainly against the funding. The blog also ran an online poll asking whether the city should “spend millions on the expansion at Mater Dei,” drawing 1,715 no votes and only 171 yes votes.

“I think Mater Dei is a great institution. I just think there are other higher priorities in our city right now that our money could be spent on,” Chris Schmidt, a resident of Wyndsor Village, said in an interview with Voice of OC.

Mater Dei President Patrick Murphy told the council at its March 15 meeting – when the council approved the expansion but postponed its decision on the funding request – that granting the money would be “in the spirit” of the school’s 1995 development agreement with the city and subsequent amendment in 1999.

Murphy also cited the school’s benefits to Santa Ana, including the fact that 20 percent of the over 2,000 students at the school are residents of the city and that the “lion’s share” of $5 million in “need based financial aid” goes to those students.

Also, Murphy said the school doesn’t need to build the parking garage, but is doing so because it wants to alleviate traffic in surrounding neighborhoods and plan for decades into the future. The school could move ahead with constructing a performing arts center without building the parking garage, he said.

“Please understand that Mater Dei High School did not have to complete this project,” Murphy said.

However, plans to build the parking garage are also upsetting some of Mater Dei’s neighbors. The school is building the structure where there are residential homes, and the owners have complained that Mater Dei officials have acted unfairly in negotiations to acquire those properties.

City staff is recommending setting a fixed amount of $2.5 million if the council chooses to grant the school funding for the improvements, according to an agenda report. Staffers are also recommending against provisions they say could increase costs by requiring the city to expedite construction and give Mater Dei too much control over the work.

But to grant the funding, officials would either have to dip into the city’s reserves — which they acknowledge could affect the city’s bond credit rating — or steer money away from other priorities. If council chooses the latter option, “this would be the first time in three years that programs would be reduced or cut,” the staff report notes.

That’s not likely to be received well by residents and city activists who have clamored for services in recent years and a greater role in city leaders’ decisions on the municipal budget, which is also on the agenda for Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, some council members have bristled at Mater Dei’s funding request, describing it as last-minute and hinting that the school was trying to push it through via its relationship with Mayor Miguel Pulido.

Councilman Sal Tinajero told Murphy at the March meeting that the council has “significantly changed the way business is done on the dais” and that it’s important to speak to all council members.

The admonishment was a subtle reference to an older era when Pulido had far more singular control over high level city decisions. Council members have since shifted control of the city bureaucracy from the mayor by replacing the city manager.

Councilman Roman Reyna was more direct in a comment on Facebook – “the mayor is trying to get this through,” he wrote in response to a resident’s question about the funding request.

So far, only Councilwoman Michele Martinez has outright opposed the allocation. In a Voice of OC interview, she said “there are more pressing things than trying to help private entities,” and that, with Orange County having more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country, Mater Dei should have no problem raising money.

Murphy told the council in March that if the funding request is rejected, the school will raise the money privately.

“If you say no, it’s a different time, a different era, I will accept that,” Murphy said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • Jacki Livingston

    The separation of church and state is a foundational column in the structure of our nation. Mater Dei was founded and has been successful for a long time, based on their philosophy of separation from public schools. Now they want help. No…I am sorry, but you cannot have it both ways. You cannot keep the church out of our government, and government out of church, without a strict adherence to this mandate. The wisdom of the Founding Fathers was never more on point than it was in this area, and history bears witness to that foresight.

    I am disturbed by the increasing presence of religion in our public life, not just government, but schools. Mega Churches, which have nothing to do with faith and everything to do with worship of capitalism, have pastors who endorse candidates and even campaign for them. This cannot continue. I love the new Pope, but even he recognizes that there is a whackadoodle fringe fanatic element of Christianity (they call it that, I doubt if Christ would agree), and they are behind this Tea Party/TurnipTrump/BuildWalls nonsense that has quite literally destroyed the credibility of the entire Republican Party. In their need to appease these nutters, politicians are losing their statesmanship. Case in point, look at Reagan, Bush Sr, Colin Powell, Bob Dole and others who have a dignity. All stayed clear of the fanatical hate fringe.

    I believe, strongly, that if the parochial schools want to start getting grants from the taxpayers, they should be subject to the same rules as public ones. If the churches want to play politics, then they should pay the price of admission, just like the rest of us…that’s right…TAX THEM. The taxes from these monstrosity mega temples and the Catholic Church alone would pay off the deficit. Tax the suckers. They cannot have it both ways.

  • Ed Romero

    I don’t live in the City of Santa Ana but I do shop there, so my Tax Dollars should not be wasted on any Catholic School because their Cardinals, Bishops and Priest have cost the Catholic Church over 5 BILLION DOLLARS in Court Settlements. If the City of Santa Ana wants to help them, buy them ZIPPERS for their pants with a LOCK. Any excess funds the City of Santa Ana has should go to the General Public, repairing it’s streets in it’s lower income areas, upgrading it’s Public Parks and after School Assistance to help the Public Schools with it’s very high drop out rate.

  • T-bird

    it would be “in the spirit of” the previous development agreement. The purpose of a development agreement is to get all the points of a deal down on paper and signed by the parties, so no one is forced to later guess what is in its “spirit”. Today on election day, I recall that my Irish immigrant grandfather voted against all Irish candidates, reasoning that all politicians are crooks and the Irish at least had the Catholic Church to teach them better, so an Irish politician must be doubly crooked.

  • Mike Tardif

    VOC Sub-header: “Tuesday, the Santa Ana City Council is scheduled to decide whether to give the private Catholic high school $2.5 million from the city’s general fund or reserves to pay for a parking garage”

    To be accurate – there is a third option being presented to the Council and that is to not make this payment at all. The school has made their case for this request – and has stated that if the answer is no they are fine with that.

  • tmare1

    As a person who almost daily must pay a meter to pick up or volunteer at my child’s public school all while traversing heavily beat up streets and sidewalks for the privilege, I respectfully and loudly disagree with this appropriation of public funds. Fix the sidewalks, fix the roads and stop charging people money to pick up their children from school and maybe we can talk about giving money to a private institution.

  • Paul Lucas

    Is Santa Ana trying top reimburse MD for the sexual predator lawsuits that cost them millions?