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Santa Ana Schools Promise to Restore $15.5 Million to District Building Fund

The money was borrowed to pay bills, but Supt. Al Mijares says it will be put back, with interest, in time for use in campus construction.

October 25, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Even if trustees of the Santa Ana Unified School District identify $30 million in budget cuts when they meet Tuesday, their budgetary woes will not be over.

Next year they need to restore $15.5 million borrowed from a school construction fund to help balance the current budget -- a transfer that some trustees said was made without their knowledge.

The $15.5 million was part of a $60-million settlement that the district received last year in connection with the closure of the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin.

When the federal government announced base closures a decade ago, it pledged some of the land to local public schools. Part of that base falls within the Santa Ana district.

Instead of land, the district accepted cash, which it earmarked for construction of six new campuses and expansion of other schools.

Because of deep state budget cuts, Supt. Al Mijares said he had little choice but to transfer $15.5 million from the construction budget to the operating budget to save jobs. "We made a conscious decision to do that instead of issuing 30-day notices of layoffs to many employees," Mijares said.

The district is in such dire financial straits that, at the request of the Orange County Department of Education, state auditors are reviewing its budget.

The money intended for school construction does not need to be returned to the construction budget until the 2004-05 school year, Mijares said.

The fund transfer has caught the attention of school board watchdogs because the district has yet to build a school after passing a $145-million school construction bond in 1999.

Plans are moving forward for two new high schools, Segerstrom High School and Hector G. Godinez Fundamental High School at Centennial Park, and an elementary school.

Mijares said the district remains committed to construction, and that the emergency transfer reflects the condition of the state budget.

"To think I would allow this money to flutter away without constructing schools is a total misconception," Mijares said. "We will restore the full principal with interest."

The school board is expected Tuesday to adopt budget cuts that may mean increasing the size of kindergarten classes, eliminating middle school interscholastic sports, reducing school security and giving teachers less paid time to prepare for the school year.

But that will not resolve lingering problems.

"It just means that we will need to make further cuts to pay back this money," said board President Rosemarie Avila.

Avila and fellow trustee John Palacio said they did not know until last week that construction money has been spent to pay bills, although Mijares and Don Stabler, associate superintendent for business, said trustees approved the transfer at a board meeting.

Avila and Palacio said they believed the money was merely moved from one fund to another to balance the district's finances on paper.

Avila said she is confident the construction money will be replenished before it is needed.

"No one needs to worry," said Avila. "It's not affecting our construction program at all, and when we need the money back, we will have it. We are restructuring our finances."

Palacio said the transfer violated public trust.

"We went to the public and said this money [from the Tustin settlement] was to be used for school construction, not to balance the budget," he said. "The district has broken its promise and construction has been delayed."

School officials said construction has not been delayed because of the fund transfer.

When the district's 2003-04 budget was revised in January, it included a second transfer from the construction fund of an additional $11 million.

But officials changed their minds and made additional budget cuts instead.

Stabler said after the district completes its three-year spending plan, it will address how to repay the construction money.

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