Tustin Unified School District officials are furious over neighboring Irvine Unified School District’s decision to build a new high school within Tustin’s boundaries and have vowed to fight the plan.
Irvine school officials, while concerned about Tustin’s opposition, said Tuesday that they are proceeding legally to meet a need posed by the district’s booming enrollment.
Meanwhile, a county education official said that although trades of land between school districts are not uncommon, particularly in fast-growing areas of Southern California, this may be the first time that such unilateral action has been taken.
The roots of the controversy date back to January, when Irvine school district officials said continued growth would force them to build a fourth high school at the city’s northern end.
But after several sites recommended by the district’s staff met strong opposition from residents who said a new school would create noise and congestion in their neighborhoods, trustees instead chose a 40-acre parcel north of the intersection of Culver Drive and Irvine Boulevard, which is just inside the Tustin school district in unincorporated county territory.
Irvine school officials said a little-known clause in the state’s Education Code allows them to build a school outside their district if the site is contiguous to the district boundaries, which this parcel is. Furthermore, they said, the code stipulates that the school site eventually becomes a part of the school district that builds the school.
But Terry Bustillos, administrator for business support services with the Orange County Department of Education, said Tuesday that he checked with education officials in nine Southern California counties and that none of them could recall a case in which a school district unilaterally decided to build a school in another school district.
Tustin school officials say they are determined to block the plan.
“We want to put Irvine on notice that we think it’s wrong, and we’re going to do everything we can to stop them,” Tustin Unified Supt. Maurice Ross declared. “The board has authorized me to do everything we can.”
Corinne Riave, coordinator of facilities planning for Irvine Unified, said Irvine trustees are sensitive to Tustin’s concerns, but she defended the district’s actions.
“It’s fair to say our board is concerned about how Tustin’s opposition might, if at all, affect our status (the district’s ability to build on the parcel),” Riave said. But, she added, “we interpreted the state code to mean that it allows us to do exactly what we are doing.”
Last to Know
Tustin’s superintendent complained that he was the last to know of Irvine’s plans to build a school in his district. He said he is disappointed not only with Irvine school officials, but also with the Irvine Co., which owns the parcel. He said his district has tried to work with the construction company to plan ahead for growth in that area, which is mostly empty agricultural land right now.
Ross said it was the city of Irvine, in whose sphere of influence the school site is located, that first notified Tustin Unified of plans for the new school. He said city planners told him of the proposal, but only after the Irvine school board had voted to approve the plan.
“We couldn’t believe it. They assumed we had approved it, had signed off on it,” Ross said.
Ross said much more is at stake for Tustin than simply letting Irvine Unified move its boundaries to encompass the proposed 40-acre, $50-million high school.
If Irvine is allowed to build on the site, Ross said, residents in the Tustin district who live near the new school will eventually begin asking for permission to send their children to that school, and Tustin could eventually lose those areas to the Irvine district.
Losses in Enrollment
And that would mean losses in overall school enrollment for a district that already is suffering financially because of declining enrollment. Since 1978, his district has had to close nine schools, Ross said.
“You lay people off, you close schools, you demote people and a lot of negative things. We were looking for the light at the end of our tunnel,” he said.
The Tustin district also has had older, more experienced teachers, making higher salaries than newer, younger teachers in the Irvine district, which was established in 1972, when it broke off from the former Tustin Union School District, which became Tustin Unified, Irvine Unified and Saddleback Valley Unified.
“We said to the new districts like Irvine and Saddleback: You had it made, you had all that new land, and a lot more income and a lot lower expenses because of younger teachers, and now we’re finally in a position to turn things around. And then this,” Ross said.
Overall enrollment in the Tustin district continues to decline. But this school year, there were 45 more elementary level students than the year before--a sign to Tustin officials that the growth years will return.
Plans Own New School
In anticipation of that growth, the Tustin district has reserved a site, less than 2 miles from the proposed Irvine high school, for its own new high school. That southeastern part of the district is where school officials have expected new housing developments to be built in coming years, Ross said.
Irvine Unified’s unilateral action in the same area has so enraged Tustin school officials that the district has sent letters of complaint to everyone from Irvine Mayor Larry Agran to state Sens. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) and William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) and every member of the State Board of Education.
Keith Greer, vice president and general manager of Irvine Community Builders, a division of the Irvine Co., who also received a letter of complaint, called the matter a “miscommunication or misunderstanding.”
His company was asked by the Irvine school district to evaluate four sites, he said, but the site the school board chose was not one of them.
“We’re sympathetic to both districts,” Greer said. “They’re both operating in a situation of limited state funding, and deadlines. . . . In this circumstance, what occurred is that there was a gap in communication between two districts that unfortunately has led to the position that (Supt.) Ross has taken.
“We have the same goals, to make sure quality schools are built in these communities. We have worked with both districts for many, many years.”
Must Hold Hearing
Although a special committee of the County Department of Education must hold a hearing on Irvine’s proposal, it is unclear what weight an adverse decision would have.
Bustillos said the Department of Education’s committee on school district organization is required by the state Education Code to hold a meeting with both districts on the matter that would be open to any member of the public who wanted to comment on the issue. The 11-member committee is empowered to hear proposals to change territory from one school district to another, something that happens often in the growing south county area, he said.
But the issue raised by the Irvine-Tustin dispute is different than those generally heard by the committee. Previous matters have involved land swaps, or mutually agreed upon changes in territory, Bustillos said.
The committee, which has scheduled an April 12 meeting on the issue, must then make a recommendation to the state. But Bustillos said he does not know what would happen if either district disagreed with the committee’s finding.
“Since this is new ground, I guess we’re all going to find out,” he said.