Updated at 11:55 a.m. Nov. 4, 2015

Breaking news: Judge Joel Pressman on Wednesday set aside his own dismissal of lawsuit and called lawyers back to court Friday to set a new hearing schedule.

Original story

Backers of a long-sought Alpine high school were reeling Tuesday when a Superior Court judge dismissed their lawsuit against the Grossmont Union High School District.

Grossmont Union High School District offices. Photo by Ken Stone

But only hours later, news arrived that a state appeals court came to the opposite conclusion, agreeing that two Grossmont bond measures expressly promised a high school for residents of Alpine and Blossom Valley.

“There appears to be some conflict between the two rulings,” said Ian Friedman, an attorney for the Alpine Union School District. “So it’s hard to reconcile at this point.”

A three-judge panel of the state 4th District Court of Appeal affirmed an earlier preliminary injunction by Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman that would force Grossmont to set aside $42 million for a high school in Alpine.

But Pressman changed his mind after hearing oral arguments Friday.

“The judge’s ruling is a very welcome end to this lawsuit,” said Grossmont schools Superintendent Ralf Swenson. “Judge Pressman carefully evaluated the facts of the case and points of law and concluded that the Alpine district’s case was without merit. We agree wholeheartedly with his decision.”

Appeals court ruling in Alpine high school case. (PDF)

Pressman’s latest decision eliminates a previously scheduled December trial.

Proposition U of 2008 “does not obligate Grossmont to build a new high school in Alpine,” Pressman wrote.

In a statement, Grossmont school board President Rob Shield said: “We are thankful that the lawsuit filed by the Alpine Union School District and a small group of activists in Alpine has ended. We are happy to now focus our full attention on our primary mission, that of educating East County’s high school students.”

But in affirming the original injunction, the appeals court said Pressman was right in January and June to order a set-aside of money for Alpine.

“Prop. H stated its bond proceeds would be used to ‘construct a new school,’” said the decision written by Judge Alex McDonald and agreed to by Judges Gilbert Nares and Patricia Benke.

“Prop. U was even more specific, stating its bond proceeds would be used for ‘constructing a new school in Alpine/Blossom Valley.’ … Independently construing the language of Prop. H and Prop. U, we conclude those propositions contain a promise by Grossmont to construct a new high school in the Alpine area.”

Grossmont Union High School District statement on Alpine case. (PDF)

The appeals court ruling added: “The unambiguous language of those propositions nevertheless does not support [Grossmont’s] proffered interpretation of Prop. H and Prop. U.”

In a phone interview, Alpine attorney Friedman said of the court developments: “There’s been setbacks for everyone. Unfortunately, it delays a high school for the citizens of Alpine.”

In coming days, he said, Alpine high school advocates — including a group called Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability — have to decide whether to appeal Pressman’s summary judgment against the Alpine lawsuit.

Asked who would “reconcile” the conflicting rulings, Friedman said: “It could be reconciled by either” the lower court or the appeals court.

But Craig Sherman, attorney for the ATBA, told Times of San Diego that a legal filing is “pretty imminent” that seeks to sort out the matter.

In fact, Sherman thinks Pressman would be inclined to follow the higher court’s lead on the issue of “mandatory duty” — whether Grossmont is obligated under bond language to build an Alpine high school.

“I think we’re certainly more than halfway home” to winning the Alpine case, he said. “The question is: Are there other loose ends — issues in the case that weren’t addressed by the Court of Appeal?”

Those issues might have to go back to Pressman, he said.

Sherman said his clients would be asking the Superior Court that “an appropriate judgment be entered,” he said. “If it means going back to the Court of Appeal for a second opinion, so be it.”

Judge Joel Pressman’s final ruling in Alpine case. (PDF)

Grossmont district officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appeals court ruling.

But a dissenting member of the Grossmont school board, who has long backed a high school for Alpine, reacted to the dueling rulings, which went “from one shocking decision to a ray of hope.”

Trustee Priscilla Schreiber said: “It seems from the quotes in the U-T that the [Grossmont] district and its attorney believe they have prevailed and that the issue is resolved. Did they not read the appellate court brief?”

She said the appeals court strongly argued that bond language about the school as well as actions the district took toward building in Alpine “were all part and parcel of a promise/expectation/obligation.”

“It was an excellent brief and one I am hopeful will remind [Pressman] of why he did the right thing to begin with,” she said via email Wednesday. “If I read the tentative/final ruling correctly, the judge reversed his stance and no longer believed the bases of his own argument for the injunction, making no sense.”

As of last spring, Grossmont had spent $677,592 “defending [against] this frivolous lawsuit,” Shield said. The Alpine district, which feeds into Grossmont, had spent close to $100,000.

Also still to be decided: Alpine Union’s application with the state Board of Education on whether to hold a vote on becoming a unified school district that includes a high school.