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Land Fight With Museum Grows

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Santa Ana Unified School District is hoping to recruit parents in its lengthy fight to open the county’s first high school focusing on science and technology, right next door to the Discovery Museum of Orange County.

After two years of unsuccessful negotiations with the museum, the district this week held public meetings to present its case.

Hundreds of parents and school officials packed into the meetings.

District officials say the proposed expansion of a continuation high school that already borders the museum and Centennial Park would take up only a few unused acres, which the district leases to the museum for $1 a year.

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Museum officials, however, have balked, saying the land is part of a highly popular nature center visited by thousands of urban schoolchildren each year. If they are forced to give up the land, they say, they should be paid.

Discovery Museum board member Tim Rush said the debate isn’t just about money.

“The issue is about maintaining open space,” said Rush, who attended one of the meetings. “We understand the district’s need for new schools, but at the same time, Santa Ana has precious little open space. You’ve got two very strong competing interests.”

Many young visitors “live in overcrowded conditions, and they are hardly exposed to that kind of environment,” he said. “It’s a unique experience for kids from urban environments.”

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But school officials say relieving crowding is their point. They say the school is needed to handle an expected increase of 4,000 to 5,000 high school students over the next few years.

“Even if we were to build two high schools, that would only address future growth,” said school board President John Palacio. “It wouldn’t address overcrowding at existing high schools.” School officials say they need about two acres of the 10-acre nature center site, and they’ll sue if they have to gain access to their land..

The district mailed about 60,000 letters this week asking parents to lobby the city and the museum for the school.

District officials also want about 17 acres of mostly bare city-owned land in Centennial Park for the school’s library, theater and sports fields. City officials said they haven’t taken a position on the district’s request to use Centennial Park for such facilities, which would be open to the public.

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Among the district’s supporters at Wednesday’s meeting was Santa Ana resident Michael Sanchez, who said he has five children who will enter high school in the city over the next decade.

Building the school “is necessary because we have a lot of students, [and] we already own the land,” Sanchez said.

District attorney Ruben A. Smith said the museum offered to sell its lease interest on the land for about $1 million.

The district refused to pay such an unreasonable amount of money, Smith said. If the museum doesn’t cooperate, “we’ll let a judge decide what, if anything, the museum will get,” he said.

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