School board member Jim Kelly of Grossmont Union High School District. Photo via jimkelly.org

By Miriam Raftery

The legal settlement between the Grossmont Union High School District and the Alpine Union School District contained a nondisparagement clause that has effectively muzzled Alpine education leaders and concerned parents from criticizing the GUHSD board.

The gag order prohibits the AUSD, Alpine Taxpayers for Bond Accountability and its members from disparaging the GUHSD’s current or former board members, Superintendent or officers for their decision not to build a high school in Alpine or their decisions to use Proposition H and Proposition U bond monies despite bond language that led voters to believe the school was a priority.

(Grossmont later argued successfully to the courts that an enrollment trigger had not been met, leading to a decision favoring Grossmont and settlement of the lawsuit against the GUHSD.)

Former Grossmont schools trustee Priscilla Schreiber. Photo by Ken Stone

Did the gag order prevent people from Alpine from running for the GUHSD board?

Redistrict gave representation of Alpine to trustee Jim Kelly. Despite Kelly’s repeated opposition to funding the high school’s construction, and large community turnout at redistricting hearings where many concerned Alpine residents spoke out in favor of a high school, as well as a two-decade battle by Alpine residents to get a high school built, Kelly wound up running unopposed in Trustee Area 5.

(Board member Rob Shield also is unopposed — in Trustee Area 4 — while incumbent member Gary Woods has one challenger, Peggy Elizabeth “Liz” Weaver, in Trustee Area 3.)

Was it because the people with the most institutional knowledge, expertise and passion for an Alpine High School were silenced by the settlement?

The gag order came to light after Lou Russo, a candidate running for the AUSD, sent ECM an email criticizing ATBA member George Barnett for a post on social media criticizing the GUHSD on the Alpine High School issue, which Russo says violates the nondisclosure clause. Russo and Barnett have a long history of feuding on the Alpine Community Planning Group as well as over the contentious high school issue in the past.

Settlement terms between Grossmont Union High School District and Alpine plaintiffs. (PDF)

The October 4, 2018, online post on Loving Life Alpine by Barnett came in response to a comment by Stephanie Maynard in a discussion of an aquatic complex. Maynard stated “The AUSD board really screwed our children over. Alpine residents are wanting a huge change with our schools the funding, programs and education and plan on voting the old AUSD board members out!” She then endorsed Russo.

Barnett, also president of the Alpine Education Association, replied to Maynard, “You’ve got it backwards, perhaps. The screwing-over that Alpine kids got was from the Grossmont Union High School District Board that now won’t build the high school after it was voter-approved and funded.”

Barnett later amended his comment to add, “What was or was not built using GUHSD bond funds is not material to Alpine having its own swimming pool complex. II fully agree that the GUHSD Board has the right and authority to spend bond money as it so approves. I had no intent to disparage GUHSD. And I offer an apology if readers took that impression. Ms. Maynard’s posting of the settlement refers entirely. So, I withdraw and deleted all comments in that regard. What’s material to the discussion on the community center is if Alpiners want to pay for a complex.”

In an email to ECM, Barnett noted that the GUHSD has an Alpine School on a project list for “something like 2038,” long after the children of those who have long fought for the school will be grown and graduated.

Alpine had little choice but to sign the settlement, having also lost a unification proposal that sought to break the AUSD away from the GUHSD and allow it to build the high school, a plan that fell apart when Alpine lost its legal bid to have a portion of bond monies transferred from the GUHSD to the AUSD to fund the school’s construction.

The settlement lessened the financial liability of the AUSD, but at a high cost to the community, denying the rights of many of those most involved in the fight for an Alpine High School to speak out on the issue, support or oppose any candidates for the AUSD or GUHSD, or take a position on any future bond measures.

It also effectively prevents many leading education voices who have long advocated for an Alpine High School from running for either school board, since it would be difficult to run to represent Alpine without answering voters’ questions on this vital topic, nor avoiding criticism of an opponent for undermining efforts to bring a high school to Alpine.

“The settlement does not preclude anyone in Alpine from running for the GUHSD Board,” Barnett said Thursday. “Trustee Kelly has no opposition from Alpineers as near as I can tell.”

Barnett said both parties negotiated an agreement that acknowledges GUHSD’s rights while agreeing not to speak ill of each other going forward.

“That makes total sense because AUSD as a feeder and GUHSD as our high school requires both parties to have great operational relationships,” he told Times of San Diego. “And they do as shown by the mutual school bus operations that are a statewide model.”

But as an Alpine resident with four grandchildren in local elementary schools, “I am disappointed,” Barnett said.

“The state [school] board provided we Alpiners with two ways forward — re-submitting a unification proposition that did not rely on any GUHSD assets or seek an Alpine Union authorization for a directed charter.”

He said the Alpine High School Citizens Committee is pursuing those options with counsel and would provide whatever it learns to Alpine Union for its consideration.

That doesn’t mean that if GUHSD decides to build an excellent high school in Alpine that Alpiners would not support it totally, he said in a Facebook chat.

“My personal efforts continue to be devoted to Alpine having its own local-control high school – unification or charter. And if GUHSD has a role to play within those parameters, that is fine to me,” he said.

Alpine High School advocate Priscilla Schreiber, a member of the Grossmont school board for 16 years until 2016, said there was little doubt “Kelly and [fellow board member] Shield took that opportunity to ensure clearing a potentially threatening field.”

“Since all that has happened to the good folks of Alpine, I can’t imagine anyone who has fought for Alpine that would want to serve in such an environment that used that community for their own politically motivated self-serving purposes,” she told Time of San Diego.

“Plus running against a long sitting incumbent with all his loyal endorsers is a bit to overcome even in a smaller trustee area, I imagine.”

Schreiber, who lost her seat amid a move to district voting, called the bond program “the candy store used by Kelly to satisfy the other 95 percent. No one was going to run against him from that pool of constituents. No one cares to question anything as long as they are getting what they want.

“They don’t care that this board has mismanaged bond funds violating the requirements of Prop. 39. Courts, constituents and the CBOC didn’t understand or uphold the accountability requirements of the law.”

Miriam Raftery is editor of East County Magazine. A version of this report was originally published by East County Magazine, a member of the San Diego Online News Association. Ken Stone contributed to this report.

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