LOS ANGELES — A taxpayers' group in San Diego County won a legal skirmish in its challenge to the way the school district spends its voter approved bonds.
California Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman on Jan. 22 ordered the Grossmont Union High School District to set aside $42 million toward the costs of building a high school in the community of Alpine.
The district had designated an Alpine High School as one of the projects in line for funding in successful bond measures in 2004 and 2008, said John Lemmo, the attorney for Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability and the Alpine Union School District.
The state's 2000 Proposition 39, which lowered the threshold for passing most school bond measures to 55% from two-thirds, also requires the ballot language to list the projects the money is designated for, he said.
The Alpine plaintiffs say Grossmont UHD improperly diverted bond proceeds to projects not authorized by the voters while putting their promised school on the backburner.
Lemmo, a partner at Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP, had asked the court to freeze spending of the bond proceeds until the matter could be resolved, out of concern that the district will spend the money authorized by voters in 2008 without funding the Alpine school and before the case could be decided..
"While the court does not believe that curtailing future bond spending on the district is supported, particularly on a preliminary basis, the court does believe that evidence supports an injunction to set aside some funding for the eventual construction of the high school," Pressman wrote granting the preliminary injunction..
The district, which serves a 400-mile-square area, was ordered to set aside $14 million immediately and $28 million more by Jan. 15, 2016.
Grossmont UHSD Superintendent Ralf Swenson said in an interview it remains to be seen how the injunction will impact funding for projects the school district currently has underway. District officials said immediately following the ruling that the injunction could mean that 13,000 students sitting in 60-to-70-year old facilities might have to wait several years for modernized classrooms.
"We are considering an appeal of the ruling," Swenson said. "I hope we will get this thing stayed as we continue legal deliberations."
The school district plans to issue up to $60 million of its remaining $137 million in bond authority in April or May, Swenson said.
"I am looking forward to the sale this spring," Swenson said. "We just went through a full slate of projects that we hope to support with this funding. We intend to use the proceeds from the sale on projects that have been prioritized by order."
Prior to the 2004 bond measure, Alpine Union School District, which serves K-8 students, dropped plans to split the community's high school students from Grossmont and build its own high school, relying on promises that bond funds would be used for a new high school, Lemmo said.
Alpine is again moving forward on authorization needed from the state to serve its own high school students, but filed the lawsuit fearing the bond money would be spent, he said.
Lemmo argues that Grossmont deprioritized the high school by moving it to the final phase of bond spending in 2024.
Swenson denies that the school district "deprioritized" plans to construct the high school.
The district purchased property in 2011 for the Alpine high school, but high school enrollment in the district has declined below a predetermined "trigger" level, Swenson said.
He says the district cannot proceed with construction until it hits enrollment figures set in the ballot language that include projections for its nine high schools and two charter schools. Current enrollment under those parameters is 23,245, which is 1,700 below enrollment numbers needed to move forward.
"I think there was a decision to follow the bond language," Swenson said. "There was never been a decision to not build the high school when enrollment comes back."
The district isn't anticipating significant enrollment growth over the next two years, however.
The bonds were passed because there are significant needs on all the district's campuses, he said.
"The bond language allows us to proceed with every project we have done so far; and every project we do in the future will also fit into the bond [ballot] language," he said.