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Districts Accuse Tustin of Race Bias

In a letter to the Navy, two school agencies say the city's refusal to grant them land at the closed Marine base amounts to illegal discrimination.


Officials at two Santa Ana school districts have upped the stakes in the fight over land at the former Tustin Marine base, alleging the city is engaging in racial discrimination by refusing them space for needed campuses.

City leaders in Tustin have said the 100-acre chunk desired by the school districts is too valuable to be given away. They have plans for commercial development on the land.

But officials with the Santa Ana Unified School District and Rancho Santiago Community College District contend the city's refusal to give them land for schools on the base property is detrimental to an estimated 56,000 minority students in Santa Ana who now put up with overcrowded conditions.

"The simple truth of the matter is that no one who looks at this problem objectively can fail to see the racial implications of the city's proposed actions," Edmond M. Connor, an attorney representing the school districts, says in a letter sent Friday to William Cassidy Jr., U.S. Navy deputy assistant secretary.

In his letter, Connor contends that the city's plans for the closed helicopter base violate federal laws against racial discrimination.

The timing of the letter was triggered by two things: Tustin is preparing to certify an environmental review of its base redevelopment plan, with a hearing tonight before the city Planning Commission. At the same time, the Navy reportedly is close to approving a federal environmental review, required before the property can be conveyed by the Navy to the city.

The fight over the land at the Tustin base has grown increasingly nasty in recent months. School officials have vowed to sue if the city and the Navy approve the redevelopment plan without giving them space. City officials have refused to bend, insisting they are following federal laws.

Navy officials were unavailable for comment Monday on Connor's letter. Tustin officials involved in the reuse of the Tustin base also couldn't be reached Monday.

The districts want the city to return to a redevelopment plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 1994 that gave 75 acres of base land to Santa Ana Unified and an additional 116 acres to a coalition of school districts that included Rancho Santiago. The city revised that plan in 1996, giving land instead to three other school districts--Tustin and Irvine unified and South Orange County Community College.

City officials have argued that the land the Santa Ana districts desires is highly valuable and that without it, their plans for developing the base would crumble.

School officials have said they want the Navy to reject the redevelopment plan and refuse to turn over any base land until the schools' needs are resolved.

School officials, working last summer with Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), tried to scuttle the city's plan, but that legislative effort died. In September, school officials asked U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to intervene.

"We really don't have any time left. We're down to the wire," said Marty Burton, a Los Angeles attorney who is working with the Santa Ana districts.

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