By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Courts issue counter rulings in Alpine lawsuit
A seemingly schizophrenic set of court rulings this month in the lawsuit for millions of dollars in bond money, brought on by backers of a new Alpine high school against Grossmont Union High School District, had both sides alternating claims of victory and defeat.
The lawsuit, which was filed by the Alpine Union School District and a group calling itself the Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability, seeks to make GUHSD hold aside $42 million for a new high school they say was promised in Propositions H and U. And after a court ruling in June that ordered GUHSD to set aside the bond money, it appeared the Alpine school backers were going to win –– but then they didn’t.
On Oct. 29, Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman reversed his own ruling and issued a tentative decision to dismiss the Alpine lawsuit and cancel a hearing scheduled for early December. Following oral arguments made in court on Oct. 30, Pressman formally dismissed the lawsuit on Nov. 3.
In a press statement from GUHSD issued that day, Superintendent Ralf Swensen said the ruling was a “welcome end” to the lawsuit.
“Judge Pressman carefully evaluated the facts of the case and points of law and concluded that the Alpine district’s case was without merit,” Swensen said. “We wholeheartedly agree with his decision.”
It appeared that GUHSD had won its case –– but then that changed.
Just hours after Pressman issued his dismissal of the lawsuit, an appeals court upheld the judge’s earlier decision in favor of affirming the Alpine school’s right to the Props H and U bond money.
In light of the appeals court decision, Pressman then ordered both sides back to court on Nov. 6 for a status conference and scheduled a new hearing for Dec. 17 at 9:30 a.m. The judge also suggested both sides consider a settlement and offered to facilitate one himself. He also suggested finding another judge because of his own previous, unsuccessful attempts to get both sides to settle.
In Pressman’s decision to reverse his previous ruling and dismiss the lawsuit, he said that Props H or U are not “contracts to build” a new high school. He cited the wording of both propositions that state GUHSD has the right to decide the priority of the hundred or so projects proposed in the propositions and clauses in Prop U that the district has to exceed a threshold of students before the Alpine school can be built. That threshold has not been met since 2012, Pressman ruled.
The appeals court’s decision, however, agreed with Pressman’s earlier ruling that Props H and U did intend for an Alpine school to be built. That decision cited the court was correct in ruling that “a high school has been promised to voters at some point and there is an expectation that funds from [Prop] U would be used to finance construction.” The appeals court also cited the fact that Prop U mentions the specific location of the proposed high school in the “Alpine/Blossom Valley Area” as proof of the proposition’s intention to build it.
“Judge Pressman flipped Prop 39 on its ear when he reversed his decision and gave the board discretion over a voter-approved project,” said Priscilla Shreiber, who is in the minority of GUHSD board members that support building the Alpine school. Prop 39 is a state law that says money from bond measures must be spent on what the bond intended the money for.
“They’ve moved a lot of money to other projects,” she said, adding that some of the projects the district has approved with bond money are not specifically mentioned in the language of the proposition. Schreiber said the bond measure was sold to taxpayers to build a new Alpine high school, improve energy efficiency and to fix buildings that are in disrepair. “You fix those before you build $20 million performing arts centers that weren’t voter-approved,” she said.
An events center at Grossmont High School is a project that won’t have enough bond funding to build if the court rules that GUHSD must set aside the $42 million for an Alpine school.
Other projects that are in danger of losing funding include: security camera and safety upgrades for all schools; modernization of 12 classrooms for students currently housed in portables at Granite Hills; modernization of 50- and 60-year-old classrooms and an emergency fire lane at Helix; modernization of 50-year-old classrooms and a new events center at Mount Miguel; modernization of 50-year-old classrooms and new events center at Santana; and hygiene facilities for students with disabilities and replacement of outdated HVAC systems at West Hills.
“Blocking these improvements and enhancements is not fair to the students and voters of East County,” said Tony Manolatos, a consultant for GUHSD who is working on the Alpine lawsuit.
Manolatos said that GUHSD has the right to pass on building the Alpine school and move ahead on other projects like the events centers because the language of Prop U.
Pressman’s ruling to dismiss the lawsuit quoted the proposition’s wording that says: “Inclusion of a project on the Bond Project List is not a guarantee that the project will be funded or completed.”
The district contends that it has lived up to its obligations, so far, to build Alpine a school, even going so far as buying, cleaning and grading the property for the new school in 2009. However, GUHSD said it shelved the project, at the direction of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee, because district enrollment dropped below the threshold outlined in the proposition.
“The enrollment threshold –– total number of students attending the district’s nine high schools and two charter schools –– is 23,245. Currently, the district’s student population is at 21,173, or 2,072 below the threshold,” according to the GUHSD press statement.
Schreiber accused the board of playing politics while drafting the bond measure language because it knew that student enrollment was on the decline and that the district would unlikely meet that threshold in the near future.
“Speculation,” said Manolatos. “The fact is that the enrollment threshold is in Prop U.”
Despite the threshold language, Schreiber said it was unfair to blame Alpine residents on declining enrollment throughout the district. “The board should put the burden of declining enrollment where it is happening –– El Cajon Valley High School,” she said.
Schreiber said that the district board is intentionally trying to move other projects in front of a new school for Alpine because of Alpine Union School District’s intentions to eventually unify with the future high school –– a move that would take 5.7 percent of GUSHD’s students, and the money to fund their educations, away from the district.
Manolatos said the exact opposite is true. “[The Alpine school backers] are trying to rip off the majority of taxpayers” by suing to have a school built with the intention of leaving the district where a majority of the taxpayers who will have funded it live.
Manolatos said GUHSD is confident that it will win the lawsuit, despite the appeals court ruling. “I believe the judge was taking a cautious approach in reversing his decision,” he said, adding that the appeals court decision was only to affirm that the district set aside $42 million while the courts determined the case, and not an order to build the school. He believes the judge will re-examine the decision and determine that the language of Props H and U will win the day in court. “The evidence still speaks for itself,” he said.
––Write to Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org