LYNWOOD — Acting against the advice of the state Department of Education and risking possible loss of funding and a lengthy legal battle, the Lynwood Unified School District Board of Education has voted to acquire property on Imperial Highway for a new high school.
The board, which has been spent three years trying to come up with a suitable site for another high school to relieve overcrowding, voted 4 to 1 Wednesday to pass an "urgency resolution" to begin condemnation proceedings against 12 acres owned by Sterik Company of West Los Angeles. The property, site of the former Zodys department store in the 4200 block of Imperial Highway, is about one-third of what will be needed for the high school.
But Justin M. McCarthy, an attorney for Sterik, said the old Zodys is being remodeled and a Ralphs Giant grocery store is due to open there in October. The store would be one of 14 multimillion-dollar "megastores" planned by the grocery chain in Southern California. The stores will have three times the size of a conventional supermarket and twice the merchandise.
"Each of you will have to explain (to the community) how you let Ralphs get away," McCarthy warned the board.
"We will resist any attempt to condemn and will use every legal means," he said. "You're going to have resistance every step of the way,"
McCarthy also noted a May 13 letter from the state Department of Education that stated "the Department of Education can no longer consider the property . . . as a viable site."
Stands by Letter
Robert W. Lawrence, deputy superintendent for field services for the Department of Education, said in an interview Thursday that he stands by that letter.
"We advise and counsel . . . and our recommendation was that this was not a viable site," said Lawrence, who wrote the May 13 letter.
Because of the "inordinate amount of time taken to date in the site selection process, the redevelopment plans by the owners of the property in question and the significant accompanying increase in property value," the department decided the site was not viable, Lawrence stated in the letter.
"However, the final decision rests with the trustees. It's a local decision," Lawrence said, but he added that funds for the project had to come from the State Allocation Board, which distributes school building funds.
In 1983, the allocation board approved more than $34 million for the new school. But a spokesman said in an interview Thursday that the board might not release the money.
"Our basic stand will be if the Department of Education doesn't approve the site as viable, we will not give funds," said Lyle Smoot, assistant executive officer of the allocation board. "They can appeal to us, but it appears to be an uphill battle."
Apparent Lack of Support
School Board President Thelma Williams referred inquires about the Department of Education's apparent lack of support to attorney Karen Lichtenberg.
"I will only say we voted to take the land because we need a school," Williams said.
Lichtenberg, a senior deputy county counsel who is representing the school district in the proceedings, said it was her understanding that board members had been told to ignore the May 13 Department of Education letter.
"This did not come to me directly but I understand some board members had been to Sacramento and were told to ignore the letter," Lichtenberg said, adding that she didn't know from whom the advice came.
McCarthy also said the board made a procedural error in failing to make an offer to the company before voting to condemn the property.
He said that during a May 6 meeting with the board Sterik had asked for a decision, but the board had gone into closed session for more than two hours, returned with no decision, and the company had gone ahead with its plans to lease the property to Ralphs.
"You are interfering with a project which is valued at more than $34 million. It will open Oct. 28. Its economic consequence to the school district and city is enormous," McCarthy said.
Talks Will Be Carried On
F. L. Coates, a spokesman for the county Facilities Management Department, which aids school districts in acquiring land, said negotiations with Sterik would continue during condemnation proceedings.
He said the board did not make an offer to the company because of the urgency in obtaining the property and the fact that appraisers had been told "not to step foot on the property."
"This is private property and the owner has every right to tell us to stay off," Coates said.
Ray Meador, a spokesman for Sterik, confirmed that appraisers were kept off the property. "We refused them. The county sent us a written request (after the May 6 meeting) but we didn't know if it came from the school board or what," Meador said.
The Sterik site was the second choice of the school board. For more than a year, the board had squabbled with the City Council over acquiring Ham Memorial Park. The council had refused to give up the park.