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Disputed Santa Ana School Site Ruled Out

March 26, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Ending a struggle that galvanized north Santa Ana neighborhoods and helped defeat a school board member, trustees voted late Tuesday to scrap a $25-million campus project.

The Santa Ana Unified Board of Education voted 4-0 to kill plans for the 850-student Lorin Griset Elementary School after Supt. Al Mijares told members and a packed audience that the district could build elsewhere without it costing substantially more or losing any funds.

Board member John Palacio, who has long supported the Griset project near the upscale Floral Park neighborhood, was absent.

Trustee Sal Tinajero, who voted to build the school a year ago, said Tuesday night, "It is very difficult for me to look into your faces and go back on a decision I made. It's been a rough year."

Supporters had argued that the overcrowded district already spent $10 million to buy land and plan for the campus. Any other site would cost more and take considerably longer to complete, they said.

But district officials who were asked by the board to further study those assumptions revealed late Tuesday that a different school of the same size would cost $30.5 million, and with state reimbursements and other economies, they would break even.

"We painted ourselves into a corner," Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares told the crowd. "Lorin Griset was not the best location for a school, but it was the most expedient."

The decision was a popular one for some.

"This site should have never been considered for a school," argued Dave Hoen, chairman of the nearby Morrison Park Neighborhood Assn. He and other residents near the proposed site had asked the district to consider other locations in the city.

Hoen and others had complained that another elementary school was not needed in that area. Moreover, they said, it would bring traffic and pollution to their quiet streets.

They also warned that the 9-acre plot's proximity to the Santa Ana Freeway would subject students to noise and auto pollution, and possibly cause health problems.

However, other residents defended the school site, saying that the growing number of young families in the area justified building a school there.

"To paraphrase the movie ["Field of Dreams"]: Build it, because they are already here," said Howard Kieffer, whose 4-year-old daughter could someday attend a local school.

The controversy over the campus figured prominently in the recent voter recall of former Santa Ana Unified trustee Nativo V. Lopez, who supported the project.

Lopez, who was ousted in February, had accused the critics of the project of being motivated by class and ethnicity. An overwhelming majority of Santa Ana's 61,000 students are Latino and from low-income families.

Those opposed to the elementary school joined other Lopez detractors who had begun a recall campaign to oust Lopez from the board.

Rob Richardson, a past city councilman and Santa Ana Unified trustee who replaced Lopez, and Audrey Y. Noji, who was elected in November, had asked district staff last month to review the project.

Three years ago, the district passed Measure C, a $145-million school construction bond that, coupled with state matching funds, promised 11 new elementary schools and two new high schools.

With rising land costs, district officials said last year that they would add capacity with expansions on several existing campuses instead and by building fewer schools -- two high schools and two elementary schools. Lorin Griset was one of them.

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