An influential taxpayers group has waded into the long-running battle over an unbuilt high school, taking the side of Alpine against East County’s largest school district.

Locks are on fencing at the site of the proposed Alpine high school. Ken Stone photo

Haney Hong, new leader of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, is especially critical of the ballooning legal costs.

The Grossmont Union High School District says it has been billed $2.3 million for legal expenses through Jan. 31. This doesn’t count what it spent on lawyers for an April trial that favored Grossmont over the Alpine Union School District and an allied group.

“This expenditure of taxpayer funds, regardless of whether it meets the letter of the law, certainly doesn’t meet the spirit of the bond proposal and seems highly inappropriate,” Hong told Times of San Diego after a request for comment.

“More importantly, it could have been avoided completely if the district had followed the expenditure plan promised in its [Proposition U] bond measure.”

Hong, who joined the taxpayers group in January as president and CEO, acknowledged that conditions change in bond programs.

But he said in a statement: “The construction of a new high school in Alpine was a significant part of this bond proposal featured prominently in the argument for it featured on the ballot in 2008.”

He noted that $417 million Prop. U passed by fewer than 3,000 votes, or 1.65 percent, “and it seems likely that the bond would not have passed without the support of voters in Alpine.”

On Thursday, Grossmont issued a statement saying the district explained itself fully at trial over “a lawsuit that it did not seek,” noting that the judge agreed.

Haney Hong of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

“The building of a school in Alpine impacts not merely Proposition U bond money,” said the district. “It has long-term implications for the economic viability of the entire district. The economic costs to this district of building and supporting a new high school, at a time of declining enrollment, would negatively impact the education of all students in this district.”

The K-8 Alpine district, which feeds into the 11-school Grossmont district, says it has spent $672,632 to date trying to force Grossmont to set aside $42 million for a high school — an effort launched in October 2014.

Meanwhile, the smaller district is waiting on word from Sacramento on whether a unification vote will be ordered, which would allow it to split off from Grossmont (and take a portion of its budget).

“Per the last communication received by the [Alpine] district, the unification petition is anticipated to be presented to state Board of Education in November 2016, with that date subject to change,” said Jennifer Nerat, Alpine district business manager.

In February, Grossmont’s school board voted 3-2 vote to spend an additional $620,000 on legal costs — bring the total authorized to $3 million.

Trustee Priscilla Schreiber, who has opposed dipping further into school bond funds to fight Alpine, said: “Between Judge [Joel] Pressman and [law firm] Orrick, they are driving up the costs in this case. Alpine has to fund-raise while the district pillages the bond program and uses Alpine’s tax dollars against them.”

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

Schreiber says she thinks the legal spending is an illegal use of bond funds under Prop. 39, the 2000 measure that reduces approval of school bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent under certain circumstances.

Nancy Herbst, chairwoman of Grossmont’s Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee, declined to comment on the growing legal tab.

But Nick Marinovich, a former member of the CBOC who resigned partly over the Alpine issue, has slammed the spending as ”totally insane and irresponsible.”

Now he’s concerned about the bond program overall.

“The [Grossmont] district is definitely borrowing near the debt limit cap (1.25 percent of assessed valuation). The district is within 6.8 percent of capacity this year and forecast to be within 5.1 percent next year with the new debt issued.”

He called this an aggressive bond program in terms of borrowing and, when the number of students in the district is considered, “it has one of the highest amounts of debt per student in the county.”

Marinovich worries that future tax rates could rise above the statutory cap of $30 per $100,000 assessed valuation to pay for existing debt.

Excerpts from May 2016 Grossmont bond workshop (PDF)

Judge Pressman this month sided with Grossmont in a preliminary ruling, but Alpine high school advocates haven’t yet decided on whether to appeal.

Sal Casamassima, a longtime high school proponent, said Pressman held a brief hearing Wednesday but didn’t finalize his preliminary ruling.

“Will probably need another week or two before all is sorted out,” Casamassima said via email. “For this 20-minute hearing, Grossmont had their high-priced Orrick counsel from San Francisco (Warrington Parker III) plus another lawyer. That’s another load of bond money out the window.”

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if Grossmont approached the $4 million mark in the next few weeks and would need more school board authorization by the majority of Gary Woods, Rob Shield and Jim Kelly. (Trustee Jim Stieringer has joined Schreiber in opposing further legal spending.)

Taxpayer watchdog Hong, in apparently the group’s first comments on the Alpine battle, said: “These voters were promised a new high school would be built in their [community] — and agreed to pay taxes to build it.

“Nearly 10 years later, these taxpayers are now footing the bill to fund a lawsuit that will block that high school from being built.”

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