Updated at 4:10 p.m. Dec. 26, 2015

Two days before Christmas, a Superior Court judge guaranteed added expense in a $2 million legal battle over a never-built Alpine high school — ordering a trial for two warring school districts.

Judge Joel Pressman (inset) with Grossmont Union High School District offices.
Judge Joel Pressman (inset) with Grossmont Union High School District offices.

Judge Joel Pressman on Wednesday rejected requests by the Grossmont Union High School District, the Alpine Union School District and an allied Alpine taxpayers group for summary judgments.

Unlike previous stages, he opted against favoring one side or another.

In the process, he put the case on track to cost taxpayers more than $3 million. The Grossmont school board (by a 3-2 vote) last month OK’d spending as much as $2.37 million in bond money to fend off the Alpine suit. Alpine had spent $370,000 as of Thursday, an attorney said.

No trial date was set, but Pressman scheduled a status conference for 10 a.m. Jan. 8 in downtown courtroom C-66.

The K-8 Alpine district sued in October 2014 to have its parent 11-campus district set aside $42 million to build a long-sought high school. Alpine says two voter-approved bond issues, in 2004 and 2008, promised a “12th high school” serving Alpine and Blossom Valley.

Judge Pressman trial order of Dec. 23, 2015 (PDF)
Pressman trial order of Dec. 23, 2015 (PDF)

Although a state appellate court said Propositions H and U pledged an Alpine high school, a three-judge panel didn’t resolve the issue of whether an enrollment “trigger” in the bond wording had been reached to move forward with construction at the old Lazy A Ranch off Alpine Boulevard, south of Interstate 8.

Grossmont officials say it couldn’t build the high school until districtwide enrollment reached 23,245. (The district’s student population stood at 21,173 last month, according to Grossmont officials.)

Alpine advocates says the threshold was met years ago.

“That target was met for three school years after Prop. U passed, during which the district sought bids and site work construction began,” Michael Waterman wrote in a September 2014 Union-Tribune column.

In a seven-page “minute order” released Wednesday afternoon, Pressman said: “On whether or not the prerequisites were satisfied that triggered that [build-a-high-school] promise, the Court of Appeal did not decide that issue.”

Pressman, who heard arguments in the case a week ago, wrote: “The ‘issue’ that remains to be tried is whether the prerequisites were satisfied.”

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Other issues will be heard as well, and Pressman said: “As a matter of economy, both sides, and the communities they serve, are better served by proceeding to trial on these issues in light of direction given by the Court of Appeal.”

Grossmont also fought the $42 million set-aside by arguing that the state Board of Education was still deciding whether to grant Alpine’s petition to create a unified school district, which would lead to a public vote and possibly siphoning money from the larger district.

However, Pressman said a determination of existing bond obligations would not impact the state Board of Education’s verdict on a unification vote “but will aid in determining what the assets are.”

“Factual questions remain as to the proper interpretation of the Proposition U language,” the judge wrote, “including whether the trigger is intended to be once and for all time, or is an ongoing
requirement as well as the proper understanding of the language ‘release of request for construction
bids,’ particularly in light of the lease-lease back structure.”

Grossmont schools Superintendent Ralf Swenson said the district was disappointed in the ruling since bond projects remain in limbo.

“The facts in this case have not changed,” Swenson said via email Thursday, noting the district is 2,000 students below the “trigger” threshold. “Most school districts facing enrollment numbers like ours would not even think about building a new school right now.”

Signaling an intention not to settle out of court, Swenson said: “We will continue to fight for all of our students and all of our schools.”

Alan Brubaker, an attorney for the Alpine district, told Times of San Diego: “By setting the case for trial, Judge Pressman now believes the main issue left to be tried is whether the prerequisites to construction under Proposition U have been met. While we remain willing to engage in settlement discussions, given the court’s decision we will continue to prepare to try the merits of the Alpine district’s claims.”

Two dissenting members of the Grossmont school board said they weren’t surprised by the trial order. (Board President Robert “Rob” Shield has not responded to a request for comment.)

Trustee Priscilla Schreiber, a longtime backer of an Alpine high school, said an out-of-court settlement had been considered by the school board.

“If you watch the last two board meetings, you’ll see that two members would like to see a settlement — but unless the settlement is ‘nothing for Alpine’ then there will be no settlement. Hard to fathom that this same board that voted twice to set aside $65 million [for an Alpine school] would now spend upwards of $3 million of what they believe is an endless stream of taxpayer dollars to pay attorneys to renege on those two resolutions.”

Schreiber said Pressman saw through Grossmont’s “feeble attempt” to argue a statute of limitations had expired for Alpine.

“This isn’t the only time that the district’s attorneys have fabricated and misrepresented the facts,” she said via email. “But with the board majority calling all the shots and bent on playing politics, at the taxpayer’s expense, it’s no wonder that they will stop at ‘nothing’ to see that Alpine taxpayers get nothing.”

Grossmont Trustee Jim Stieringer said the case was a long way from being settled, “unless the parties (including the district) decide to stop the hemorrhaging and engage in meaningful settlement discussion.”

He said two board members (Shield and Jim Kelly) have been designated to serve as a settlement committee, but “I have no idea whether they have presented anything to the other side.”

Calling himself an eternal optimist, Stieringer said he was hopeful Grossmont will decide to build a school rather than pour bond funds “down the legal rat hole.”

“I am absolutely convinced that the Alpine High School will be constructed,” he said. “I prefer that it be built by the GUHSD’s talented construction staff rather than by the elementary school district. However, if and when the Alpine district is eventually unified, the construction will be managed by them rather than by us.”