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Yorba Linda Offers to Help Fund Campus

Education: Because the $80-million deal hinges on the school district dropping a long-standing lawsuit against the city, the superintendent is skeptical.

January 05, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to snare its own high school, the Yorba Linda City Council has offered the local school district an $80-million package of land and cash to build a campus, but only if educators drop their lawsuit over disputed tax money.

The council voted unanimously in closed session Thursday to give the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District 40 acres for a high school, $20 million for design and start-up costs, plus other funds over the next several years.

The vote came as a surprise to school district officials, whose attorneys have been in the midst of confidential negotiations with the city over that very proposal. The suddenness of the council's decision further fuels the school district's mistrust of the city, district Supt. Dennis M. Smith said.

"If indeed the city is going to provide us $80 million that included a high school site, we would sign in a flash," Smith said. "But the specific language has to be clear so it presents no wiggle room. The history of Yorba Linda is such that we've not been treated in a way that's fair, so why would we sign an agreement that wasn't explicit?"

The school district and the city had been divided for years over the question of whether Yorba Linda should get its own high school. While city leaders pushed for the school, district officials said they couldn't afford it and there was no need for it.

Last summer, things changed when district officials said explosive growth over the past decade combined with the latest projections meant there were enough students to justify a new high school.

Most Yorba Linda students attend the district's Esperanza High in Anaheim. Built for 1,800 students, the school has an enrollment of about 3,000. To handle the overflow, 62 portable classrooms have been moved in, and some classes are given at a former elementary school across the street.

Complicating the high school construction issue is the lawsuit the district filed against the city two years ago and the ensuing hostility it engendered between school administrators and council members.

The district contends that the city violated an agreement the two sides signed more than 15 years ago to compensate the schools for tax funds the school district lost when Yorba Linda formed a redevelopment district. Smith said the city currently owes Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified $8 million under terms of the original agreement. He said that figure would grow to $200 million more by the time the agreement expires in 2034. City officials hotly dispute that amount.

A trial, which repeatedly has been postponed, is slated to begin Jan. 22 in Superior Court. And in March, the school district will ask voters to approve a $102-million bond measure, money that would go toward renovation and construction throughout the district.

"Without the bond issue, we won't get a high school," Smith said. "Without a redevelopment agreement, we won't get a high school."

Against that backdrop, the Yorba Linda City Council made the offer of land and money. The city would be required to spend no more than $15 million for the campus under the proposal, said City Councilman John M. Gullixson, who has been leading the fight for a high school in Yorba Linda. The city also offered to increase the district's share of redevelopment tax

dollars by 25%. City Manager Terrence Belanger did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Smith said that although the district is inclined to accept the money offer, he said the district would get only half the amount he contends the original redevelopment agreement called for.

Gullixson said the district has until Jan. 14, the day before the next council meeting, to consider the deal. "We will either have a deal or we won't," Gullixson said.

Although he said he has long been a supporter of a high school in Yorba Linda, Gullixson criticized the way the district is run.

"Placentia-Yorba Linda probably has facilities in the bottom 20% of the county," he said. "They're awful. They don't keep them up."

Replied Smith: "It's just an indication with how out of touch he is with the community and with the schools and the quality of education afforded our children."

Gullixson, a lawyer whose two children attended Esperanza, does not view the lawsuit and the proposed high school agreement as related.

Because council members want a local high school, "we said we'll hold our nose in regard to your lawsuit, and we'll make an offer."

Smith, meanwhile, said the school district was never notified that the council would discuss or vote on the proposal.

"We weren't even aware of that meeting," he said. "We were in the midst of confidential settlement discussions."

He said Yorba Linda submitted a settlement agreement to the district two weeks ago. The district had responded Dec. 28 with its own changes, few of which made it into the version finally approved by the council, Smith said.

The district's changes had to do with language settling the dispute over redevelopment taxes, Smith said.

"Trust is one thing built over time, and the action of the city has been such that we want to make sure it's in writing," Smith said.

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