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Santa Ana Districts Vow to Renew Fight for Base School Site

They'll try again on bill that failed in final minutes of legislative session and hope to get federal pressure on Tustin.

September 02, 2000|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials with two Santa Ana school districts vowed Friday to return to the state Legislature in December with an attempt to force the city of Tustin to turn over land at the former Tustin Marine base for a joint campus.

"We have the votes," John Palacio, president of the Santa Ana Unified Board of Education, said Friday. "We just ran out of time."

The current legislative session adjourned Thursday at midnight as Santa Ana allies raced to conduct a Senate vote on a bill that would have compelled Tustin to turn over 100 acres of the base for a one-of-a-kind campus taking students from kindergarten through community college. The bill passed the Assembly on Thursday evening on a 43-29 vote.

After hours of procedural wrangling, the bill was sent to the Senate floor at 11:58 p.m. Santa Ana had the votes in the Senate to pass the bill but ran out of time. Arguing against the bill at the Senate Rules Committee was longtime Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), who went to bat for Tustin to keep its base reuse plan intact.

Johnson urged lawmakers to reject the last-minute effort to change a 4-year-old reuse plan that Tustin developed after nearly two dozen public meetings.

"They were asking legislators with no background on the issues involved to interject their judgment in what is and should be a local decision," he said.

Disappointed Santa Ana officials nonetheless rallied Friday from what they called a temporary defeat.

"The message is loud and clear that there's sufficient support in the state Legislature to revive the bill," Palacio said. He said the two school districts--Santa Ana Unified and Rancho Santiago Community College--also will ask federal officials to pressure the city to agree to the land deal.

Santa Ana and Rancho Santiago officials will travel to Washington, D.C., in the next two weeks to plead their case with representatives of the Navy and the U.S. Department of Education, said Ruben A. Smith, an attorney representing the Santa Ana district.

"This is like a football game where we might be behind at halftime, but there's still a lot of football to play," Palacio said.

Tustin officials acknowledged Friday that the fight isn't over. But they defended their denial of the Santa Ana districts' proposal, saying they followed the federal base reuse process and fairly divided up the property.

"We tried to negotiate with the Santa Ana school district, but we were simply met with demands," Councilwoman Tracy Wills Worley said. "Perhaps it's not over but certainly round one went Tustin's way."

The bill was backed by a coalition of central Orange County and Latino legislators, who rallied behind arguments that Santa Ana's mostly minority students were being deprived of a desperately needed new school. The Tustin and Irvine districts, with much smaller and more homogenous student populations, will get a total of four new schools on the base; the South Orange County Community College District also has been promised 100 acres.

"People really need to see what's behind this," fumed John Hanna, a trustee for Rancho Santiago. "Tustin and south Orange County don't want Latinos from Santa Ana in their city. We're not about to throw the young men and women and kids of Santa Ana overboard because someone wants to [build] a golf course or a Wal-Mart instead of a school."

City and south Orange County college officials, meanwhile, condemned what they said was an attempt to turn a jurisdictional dispute into a racial issue. "That has no place at all in the argument," Johnson said.

Though the three affected school districts agreed in 1994 to share space at the base--a proposal endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education--the deal fell apart after city officials moved the base's "learning village" under south Orange County's control.

The land sought by the Santa Ana schools sits between Warner Avenue and Barranca Parkway off Redhill Avenue--prime property that the city has earmarked for a commercial zone. If the city were forced to give it up--or find land for the district elsewhere on the base--it would undercut economic forecasts for the base, city officials said. Under federal law, cities can obtain closed bases for free if they promise the redevelopment will replace the base's financial contribution to the local economy.

In their appeal to legislators, Santa Ana officials pulled out maps and statistics demonstrating their need for more school sites:

* Santa Ana Unified's student population is approaching 60,000, with 27,000 students taught in portable classrooms. That's more than double the 14,000 students in all of Tustin schools; Irvine schools have about 25,000 students.

* There are more students in a two-mile radius around the Tustin air base than the student population of Tustin and the student population of Irvine. And Santa Ana expects a 40% increase in grades 9 to 12 in the next five years.

* Rancho Santiago has more than 54,000 students on half the acreage of the South Orange County Community College District, which has 33,000 students.

Johnson said he was sympathetic to the Santa Ana districts' plight, but that they were trying to solve the problem using the wrong location. In Tustin's redevelopment plan, there would be no new homes built that would affect the Santa Ana districts, while nearly 5,000 new homes would impact the Tustin, Irvine and South County college districts.

"I have great sympathy for the overcrowding situation in the Santa Ana school district," Johnson said. "[But] the problems they have have nothing to do with this base reuse."

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