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Private Meetings With City Over Land Deal Anger School Trustee

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Simi Valley school trustee has accused school officials of dodging public review by holding closed meetings with city leaders to discuss the purchase of district land for a new police station.

Trustee Debbie Sandland denounced her fellow board members Friday, saying they are seeking a quick solution to the district’s financial woes by considering selling the land for less than it is worth. She also accused her colleagues of denying community members access to the decision-making process.

“I vehemently oppose the closed-door conduct of these meetings,” Sandland said in a written statement. “I believe a maximum effort must be made to address the public’s right to know what is being done with taxpayer property.”

Sandland’s colleagues on the board could not be reached for comment.

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But school officials denied the accusations, saying no action has been taken regarding the 36-acre parcel located at the corner of Tapo Canyon Road and Alamo Street across from City Hall.

“The city is pursuing development of a new police station,” Supt. Mary Beth Wolford said. “In doing their search, they have narrowed down to two locations, one of them being the district property.

“The board was interested in holding a discussion with the city and felt that was appropriate,” she said.

A committee comprised of two trustees and two City Council members, which was formed to discuss matters of mutual interest but had not convened for a year, began meeting again recently to discuss the potential sale of the land.

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At about the same time in December, the school board appointed Sandland and board President Diane Collins to serve on the committee.

But Sandland attended just one meeting before trustees decided to rescind the appointments and let Wolford select representatives instead. She chose Collins and newly elected trustee Norm Walker.

City Councilwoman Barbara Williamson, who serves on the joint city-school committee, said Sandland was adamant that the district get top dollar for the land. The property has been valued at $9 million to $14 million.

“Debbie is a very outspoken woman and she came out early and said, ‘This is what I will do and what I want,’ and I think she ruffled some feathers,” Williamson said.

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Sandland said Friday that her criticism of the board was not triggered by “sour grapes” over her removal from the committee, but her concern that school officials are keeping information from the public.

Before it was restructured, the committee was subject to state open-meeting laws because members were appointed by government agencies. But when Wolford was allowed to choose the school representatives, those restrictions no longer applied, the superintendent said.

Sandland claims that the move was orchestrated to limit public input, but school officials deny the accusation.

The public will be notified of “any actions or potential actions to be taken by the school board,” Wolford said. “But there is nothing to discuss at this point.”

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But Sandland contends that public involvement is needed when elected officials meet to discuss ideas--especially in this case, when the subject is possible sale of district land to another public agency.

“I’m just asking for some public input,” Sandland said, adding that she would like to see a community task force created to evaluate the proposal.

Both Williamson and Wolford, however, said the committee had to meet privately because the land in question is embroiled in a lawsuit.

“In order for the city to sit down and talk turkey we had to talk about the lawsuit,” Williamson said. “That’s why it went into closed session.”

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Simi Valley Unified purchased the land in the 1960s with the intent to put a school there, but in 1991 entered into a partnership with private developers to build on the site, hoping to generate money for cash-strapped schools.

But developers sued the district for damages last year because a plan to develop the land was rejected by the city. The district subsequently countersued.

An April trial date has been set, and a settlement hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20, Wolford said. If the lawsuits are settled, the district could sell the land. But Wolford said no deals have been struck.

“This is a matter for the City Council,” she said. “We are not planning any utilization (of the land). Our hands are completely tied.”

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