Advocates of an unbuilt Alpine high school lost a round in court Friday when a judge approved $38 million in bond spending on two Grossmont Union High School District modernization projects.

Grossmont Union High School District offices are in the refurbished “Castle” next to Grossmont High School. Ken Stone photo

The Alpine Union School District sought to bar the much-larger high school district from carrying out work at Spring Valley’s Monte Vista High School and El Cajon’s Valhalla High, fearing it would use up money that could go toward finishing an Alpine high school.

But Judge Joel Pressman in San Diego Superior Court ruled in favor of the high school district, saying its lease-leaseback construction deals were OK.

“We are pleased with Judge Pressman’s ruling because of what it means for the students and staff at Monte Vista and Valhalla high schools,” Grossmont schools Superintendent Ralf Swenson said in a statement. “Students will benefit from the classroom improvements and upgrades planned at both schools, and the judge’s ruling ensures the work will proceed this summer.”

Swenson again slammed what he called “a small group of Alpine residents,” who seek to “disenfranchise numerous students.”

“While they lost this round, they have succeeded in blocking 11 other school improvement projects throughout the district,” he said. “The district is working to get those projects back on track and expects students will once again prevail when the facts are presented at trial.”

Judge Pressman’s ruling in validation challenge by Alpine school district (PDF)

Swenson referred to another court case — in which the K-8 Alpine district and an allied taxpayers group won a court order requiring the Grossmont district to set aside $42 million for an Alpine high school they contend was promised in 2004 and 2008 bond issues.

A civil trial in that injunction case is set for December.

Alan Brubaker, an attorney for the Alpine school district, told Times of San Diego on Monday that a decision hasn’t been made on whether to appeal the latest ruling.

“The result doesn’t deter us,” Brubaker said. “We’re focused on the big picture.”

The lawyer said his side was disappointed in the judge’s ruling — which he said relied on controversial legal precedents. He noted Sunday’s column in The San Diego Union-Tribune citing a Fresno taxpayer’s lawsuit challenging the leaseback of a new middle school, saying it violated competitive bidding laws. (An appellate court agreed.)

“The decision, if upheld by the state Supreme Court, could be a financial bombshell, forcing school districts and their corporate partners to undo deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” wrote veteran Sacramento reporter Dan Walters.

For Brubaker’s part, every dollar Grossmont spends that isn’t toward construction of the 12th district high school in Alpine takes the district “further away from the goal.”

“These particular projects alone don’t impact the high school [being] built, but the monies set aside right now aren’t going to be sufficient to build a high school. The long-term picture is a challenging one for the high school to be built.”

Grossmont Union High School District fact sheet on several projects (PDF)

Alpine school officials still await word from the state Board of Education on their application to become a unified school district — which amounts to a divorce from the Grossmont district.

The state school board “has not been active — disappointingly so,” Brubaker said. “And they won’t commit to become active.”

Brubaker says another unification case is in line before Alpine’s.

“There are no dates set” for a decision, he said.

Priscilla Schreiber of the Grossmont school board — a longtime supporter of an Alpine high school — also reacted to the judge’s ruling, which rebuffed Alpine’s challenge in a so-called validation case.

“Lawsuits by their very nature are a disruption, inadvertently causing collateral damage in their wake, and this recent validation protest, unfortunately, is an example of that,” she said. “However, there should be no misunderstanding that the Alpine Union School District and the Alpine Taxpayers For Bond Accountability have every legal right to pursue all possible avenues under the law to seek taxpayer accountability.”

Schreiber criticized the governing board majority and Swenson for faulting Alpine activists, since the “small group” represents over 25 percent of that East County town’s population — signers of the unification petition.

“It is the GUHSD board majority who are the ‘political’ activist and solely responsible for what is adversely happening in our bond program” for Propositions H and U, she said. “Most all of the projects that are listed as being impacted by Alpine are, in fact, directly related to the board’s own inability to properly manage the bond program.”

She said that rather than take responsibility, other board members “use these current legal circumstances to blame Alpine. This is contrary to the judge’s determination, and why he imposed the preliminary injunction.”

She repeated her critique of the governing board majority of Jim Kelly, Rob Shield and Gary Woods.

“The board was obligated to set a project priority list with regard to safety, modernization, abatement, technology, etc.,” she said. “If these projects were a priority, then why have they not already been completed?”

Schreiber said the Monte Vista, Valhalla and others projects “that they are now crying about not [being] done [are] because this board abdicated their responsibility by not setting a project priority list and instead let the staff and school sites ultimately decide what projects went first.”

At Valhalla, the district would spend $30 million in bond money on a 12-month project to upgrade 49 classrooms, including career technical education, theater and choir facilities, special education suite, restrooms and student support services.

At Monte Vista, $8.6 million would be spent to modernize Buildings 700, 800 and 800A and include improvements to choral, band/orchestra classrooms, food service kitchen, ASB classroom, restrooms, computer lab classrooms, and automotive and metal shop classrooms.

In earlier interviews, schools chief Swenson has attacked Alpine’s validation challenge as “mean-spirited,” and prevented work in what he called a “summer sprint.”