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Santa Clarita Valley : Judge May Dismiss 2 School Funding Suits

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge Wednesday appeared to be leaning toward dismissing two lawsuits filed by crowded Santa Clarita Valley school districts to block two housing developments until funding is found to build new schools.

Judge Kurt J. Lewin said he would consider Los Angeles County’s motion to drop the suits. “In my opinion, what this is really all about is the imposition of fees” on developers, he said.

Lewin called the lawsuits an attempt to circumvent a state law on school financing. An appellate court last month held that the law sets limits of $1.50 per square foot on the amount school districts can charge housing developers for school construction.

Schools Attorney

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Wendy Wiles, attorney for the William S. Hart and Saugus school districts, argued that the lawsuits are not asking the county to impose fees to pay for schools and, as such, should not be tied to the appellate court ruling.

The school districts simply are asking that the projects, which include more than 3,000 homes, apartments and condominiums, be postponed until funding is obtained, she said.

Because the developments were approved without considering schools, Wiles said, the districts maintain that the housing projects do not comply with a sophisticated development-monitoring system adopted by the county in 1987. The system, or the DMS, was the result of a 12-year lawsuit brought by slow-growth groups against the county.

The DMS prohibits the county from approving residential projects that will overburden the school system, she said.

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Darlene Phillips, a county attorney, argued that the state school financing law, enacted in 1987, clearly preempts imposition of fees by the county on developers to pay for school construction under the DMS. County Counsel Dewitt W. Clinton agreed in an opinion issued earlier this month.

Will Seek Transfer

Wiles said she will ask that the case be transferred to Judge Norman L. Epstein, who presided over the last two years of the DMS lawsuit.

Phillips said after the hearing that to remove the case from Lewin’s court would amount to “a slap in the face of Judge Lewin.” Lewin, however, said he “would be happy to have Judge Epstein” hear the lawsuit if the school districts wish.

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Phillips said she doubts that the county would attempt to block the school districts’ efforts to have the case transferred to Epstein.

“I’m not surprised that a decision was not rendered” Wednesday, said Clyde Smyth, superintendent of the Hart district. “It’s an incredibly complicated issue.”

The three high schools in that district will be over capacity by a total of almost 2,000 students by 1992, Smyth said. He added that based on county population projections for the year 2010 in the fast-growing valley, the five area school districts will need $400 million to allow doubling their student enrollment to more than 40,000.

The valley’s population is expected to increase from its current 120,000 to an estimated 270,000 by 2010 because of rapid housing construction.

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