Santa Ana District Outbids 6 Rivals for Surplus School Building

Times Staff Writer

In a spirited bidding war over nine acres of land and a surplus school site, which lasted 1 1/2 hours and included 93 separate bids, the Santa Ana Unified School District ultimately won out with the top figure of $3,855,000.

The school is owned by the Tustin Unified School District, which closed it in 1982. For two years, Tustin Unified has leased the building at 1951 Mabury St. in Santa Ana to Santa Ana Unified, which has used the facility as the back-to-basics John Muir Fundamental School.

Santa Ana Unified officials said that 400 of its students attend John Muir and that if the building were sold to someone else, the district would face a crisis.

Six other bidders competed against Santa Ana Unified during Monday night's auction at a meeting of the Tustin Unified school board. Others submitting bids were: 3-M Developers Enterprises of Torrance; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Southwest Diversified Inc. of Newport Beach; Dasco-D&D; Developers of Brea; A.M. Homes of Newport Beach, and the Fieldstone Co. of Newport Beach.

Bidders other than the church apparently sought the land for development, although it is zoned "O" by Santa Ana, which allows only limited use, such as for a public school, civic auditorium or open space. Had a developer bought the land, new zoning would have been needed for other uses.

The rules called for a minimum sealed bid of $2.5 million, and the first oral bid thereafter had to be 5% higher than the highest sealed bid. Tustin Unified officials said the land and buildings were appraised at $2.5 million.

The highest sealed bid was $2.6 million, and the first oral bid jumped to $2,793,000. Thereafter, all oral bids had to be at least $10,000 higher than the previous bid. The action began at 8 p.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m., with Southwest Diversified repeatedly raising its bid at least $10,000. But finally, Santa Ana Unified's bid of $3,855,000 remained unchallenged, and the Tustin Unified School District unanimously voted to accept it.

Santa Ana Unified Asst. Supt. C.G. (Pat) Browning handled the bidding for his district. After his successful bid, he declined to say how high Santa Ana Unified was prepared to go. But he said the winning bid is very much a bargain to taxpayers.

"If the school district tried to buy a site anywhere else, it would cost us at least $4.8 million to $5 million just to get six acres, not nine acres like we're getting here," Browning said. "Then we'd have to pay to relocate families, and I don't know how much that would cost. And it would cost a minimum of $1.5 million to build the school."

Browning noted that the present site already has a usable school that Santa Ana Unified can continue to use.

Santa Ana Unified "badly needs" the school building because of explosive student growth in the past 10 years, said Anthony Dalessi, an assistant superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District. Dalessi noted that the district has grown by about 1,000 new students a year for the past 10 years, and that growth rate is predicted to continue for several more years.

To house the influx of new students, Santa Ana Unified is building 22 new schools within the next five years. But spurred by past growth, Dalessi said, the district rented the vacant building from the Tustin Unified School District for the last two years for about $35,000 annually for its John Muir Fundamental School.

Tustin Enrollment Declines

By contrast, Tustin Unified, immediately to the east of Santa Ana Unified, is a declining-enrollment school district. Tustin Unified closed the building, which it called "Wallace School," in 1982 because there were too few students in the area.

The building, while within the Tustin school boundaries, is in the city limits of Santa Ana. And Dalessi said the elementary school site is well located for Santa Ana Unified's needs.

"It would be a savings for us (in Santa Ana Unified) to buy this school, rather than to build a new one," Dalessi said.

Fears surfaced last week in Santa Ana Unified when administrators learned that an unidentified church had also inquired of Tustin Unified about the surplus school. Tustin Unified officials were pleased, noting that competing bidders would drive up the price the school district could command for the vacant school.

But Santa Ana Unified officials were worried, noting that they had limited funds and could not go very far in a possible "bidding war" for the site.

Had the district been unable to buy the school building, it would have been forced to vacate in June.

'Would Have to Search'

"We wouldn't close John Muir Fundamental School if we lost the building, but we would have to search for a new building to rent before next fall," Dalessi had said before Monday night's bidding.

Santa Ana school officials noted that in Santa Ana, few buildings large enough for a school are immediately available for renting. Even fewer buildings in the city have the open space needed for schools, such as the nine acres around the Tustin surplus school, Santa Ana Unified officials pointed out.

Tustin Unified Supt. Maurice Ross said the money gained from the sale of the surplus school will be used to renovate and refurbish several aging schools in Tustin.

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