ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Rescue a Novel School Proposal

It's hard to figure out just how such a promising gain for Santa Ana as the state's first designated "space-saver" school project has turned into a potential loss.

The state officials who must approve a public school in a mall have moved closer than ever to sounding the death knell for the project. There may be blame to go around both in Sacramento and in Santa Ana for not previously communicating more effectively. But what the Santa Ana Unified School District must do now is come to terms with the state's objections and try somehow to salvage victory.

State Sen. Leroy A. Greene (D-Carmichael) was author of the enabling legislation in 1989, but after Santa Ana was well along the way to becoming the first district to build a space-saver school, things turned suddenly sour. Two months ago, when The Times reported on local and state concerns about the cost, Greene said he doubted the state would spend that kind of money for the type of school he envisioned. Santa Ana officials appeared not to have heard the senator clearly. This week, Greene objected to Santa Ana's plans to tear down two stores in the mall and rebuild them at state expense.

Space-saver schools would be several stories high, located in malls or perhaps an industrial park and share facilities such as parking lots. The intent was to avoid the expense, length and trauma of condemning residential property to build schools. The concept is good, but the $22.7-million price has raised legitimate concerns at the local and state level. Yet this week, the school district's top facilities planner said he was not aware of the state's concerns about tearing down stores despite earlier warnings.

The Santa Ana Unified School District desperately needs new schools and state money to build them. Although the district said the mall is the only adequate site, it should look again at other locations and ask the state for more time to make the space-saver concept work. And if it gets an extension, it should make sure Sacramento knows what is going on in Santa Ana every step of the way.

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