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Bid to Build High School in Yorba Linda Heads to Court

July 27, 2001|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's by far the biggest city in Orange County without a high school, a distinction that causes Yorba Linda no pride.

For years, as city leaders have pushed for a high school, officials in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified district have countered that it wasn't financially feasible.

That's all finally changing. For the first time, both the city and the district say population projections mean that a fourth comprehensive high school for the district--and the first within Yorba Linda's boundaries--is essential. Both sides have even agreed on a potential site.

But a nasty court battle looms as a major obstacle to getting the campus built. The district, accusing the city of trying to short it on redevelopment money, says it cannot start planning for a school until the issue is resolved because it needs the extra funds to complete the project.

Since the district sued the city two years ago, the two sides have been so bitterly divided that a Superior Court trial date has been set for October.

Yorba Linda Councilman John M. Gullixson, who has been pushing for a high school in the city since he was first elected in 1988, calls the district's position "extortion."

"It was such a silly lawsuit to begin with," he said. "The district will get millions during the second half of this redevelopment agreement. They just want their money upfront."

Whichever position is correct, it makes for sticky discussions about a new school.

"Both sides have been cordial in negotiations. But, no question, this legal situation has created a lot of tension," district Supt. Dennis M. Smith said. "We really can't plan anything until it's settled."

A little more than 10 years ago, the two sides signed a complicated agreement, required by state law, that would compensate the district for the tax dollars taken from it by the city for redevelopment, primarily in the downtown area.

The district says the city has shortchanged it about 60 cents on the dollar--which comes to about $7 million immediately and, Smith said, "tens of millions of dollars" more over the next 20 years.

Gullixson said the city has offered to settle the lawsuit as a way of getting things moving on the proposed school.

"We have made them an extremely generous offer," he said. "That's how much we want that school for our residents."

The case was set for trial July 30 before Superior Court Judge Thomas Gallivan. But he asked the two sides to try to negotiate a settlement one more time.

Most Yorba Linda high school students attend Esperanza High in Anaheim--a severely overcrowded campus.

The school, built for 1,800 students, has an enrollment of 2,862. To handle the overflow, 62 portable classrooms have been squeezed onto campus.

Much of the increased enrollment has come from Yorba Linda, whose population has more than doubled, to 60,000, since 1980 and is expected to continue growing.

"It's such an important part of your community's identity, to have your own school," said Gullixson, whose two children attend Esperanza. He called that campus "a good school where the teachers work hard. But it's way overcrowded."

The district's other two comprehensive high schools--which are crowded but less so than Esperanza--also draw from Yorba Linda, but in lesser numbers. (The district also has a continuation high school.)

"It's not just classroom space that's a problem," Smith said. "Overcrowding puts a strain on all your facilities: your restrooms, your library, the cafeteria. We're proud of our schools, but when you're overcrowded, things can happen."

It would take three to five years to build a school, officials say. But that's only after planning finally begins, a process unlikely to get underway until the court case is settled.

Smith acknowledges that the city's latest offer shows progress. But the two sides are still at odds.

"We all want the same thing for our students," he said. "But there's a chance it may take a judge to get us there."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Yorba Linda High?

Yorba Linda is long overdue for its first high school, city and school district officials agree. One 40- to 60-acre site has been proposed, if the two sides can settle their financial dispute.

*

* Capacity per school: 1,800

Valencia High School, 1,942 students.

El Dorado High School, 1,978 students.

Esperanza High School, 2,862 students.

*

* Current high school population in the district: 6,782

* Expected high school population in 2006: 8,000

* Approximate number of students at each of the four schools (if the fourth is built) in 2006: 2,000

Source: Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District

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