District Hires Firm to Build Disputed School

Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana school trustees awarded a $13.45-million construction contract for an elementary school, sealing the fate of the proposed campus that has divided city leaders and helped fuel a bitter campaign to recall a trustee.

Project opponents who said the school wasn't needed in their north Santa Ana area didn't attend the special Wednesday night meeting of the Santa Unified School District's Board of Education.

The board voted 4 to 1 to give the job to San Francisco-based Swinerton Builders.

The lone opponent was trustee Rosemarie Avila, who said it was not the best location for an elementary school.

"We need to have the classrooms near where the parents and the students are," Avila said.

Swinerton was the second-lowest bidder, district officials said. The lowest bidder, P.H. Hagopian Contractor of Orange, withdrew its $12.9-million bid after discovering errors in its calculations.

Lorin Griset Elementary, named for a former Santa Ana mayor, is among nine planned campuses, along with upgrades and expansions of existing schools, aimed at relieving crowding in the 61,000-student district.

The board had been criticized for moving too slowly to use Measure C, a $145-million school bond measure that voters approved in 1999. The district could qualify for at least $130 million in state matching funds.

Scheduled for completion by summer 2004, Griset will hold about 850 students. It has qualified for $12.4 million in state matching funds and will cost a total of $23 million, which includes the purchase price and $1.6 million in planning expenses, district officials said.

More than a year ago, the city had approved a luxury housing project at the former headquarters of Farmers Insurance. The district acquired the land through eminent domain for $8 million.

The campus has been fought by neighbors of the nine-acre site at Flower Street and West Memory Lane, who said it would bring traffic and pollution and that schools were needed more elsewhere.

Board member Nativo V. Lopez has charged that residents were motivated by racism and didn't want the predominantly Latino students strolling their streets.

Critics have said Lopez is bent on polarizing the city. Many have joined a campaign to recall him in a special election Feb. 4. Recall supporters also charge that Lopez encourages parents to choose bilingual education in violation of Proposition 227. Lopez says he supports parental choice.

Opponents of the campus were joined by Mayor Miguel A. Pulido and Councilman Brett Franklin, who urged voters in November to oust Lopez's perceived allies on the board, John Palacio and Nadia Davis, in an effort to halt the school. Davis lost, but Palacio won a second term.

Trustee Audrey Yamagata Noji, who replaced Davis, agreed the spot wasn't ideal but said the project was too far along to derail and that the district would lose state matching funds if it doesn't build it.

"It is hard to find nine vacant acres in Santa Ana," Noji said.

Palacio predicted the furor will fade once the school is built.

"I am confident the community will embrace Lorin Griset," he said.

Also at Wednesday's meeting, trustees voted 3 to 2 to allow staff to seek a nonprofit agency grant to offer an additional sex education program that would stress abstinence as the only sure method to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.

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