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H.B. City School District studies potential sale of 3 school sites, drawing some backlash

H.B. City School District studies potential sale of 3 school sites, drawing some backlash
Students take a cooking class at Sowers Middle School, one of three school sites the Huntington Beach City School District is looking into selling. (File Photo)

The potential sale of several school sites in the Huntington Beach City School District has parents and teachers looking for answers.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the district boardroom Tuesday night in response to the possibility of Joseph R. Perry Elementary School being sold “due to declining enrollment,” as well as either Isaac L. Sowers or Ernest H. Gisler middle schools, the latter of which has been closed since 1985.

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Perry is at 19231 Harding Lane, Sowers is at 9300 Indianapolis Ave. and the former Gisler site is at 21141 Strathmoor Lane.

The board discussed the issue during a study session last month. In November, it approved the first phase of the process for surplus land disposition for the middle schools with a $76,000 contract with BCA Architects. Phase 1 is intended to determine what the land might be worth, engage with local developers, brokers and appraisers and hear district staff’s planning ideas and goals.

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Phase 1 of the same process at Perry, which would cost about $44,000, was set to be approved Tuesday but was tabled following an outcry from community members.

“On behalf of the teachers and staff at Perry Elementary, I’d like to express our grave disappointment with the communication from the district,” Diana D’Zmura, a fourth-grade teacher at Perry, said during public comments at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s embarrassing when asked by our parents and even some of our students that are hearing what’s going on in the community, and it’s very unsettling not to have the answers for them.”

Board member Paul Morrow suggested delaying moving ahead on Perry in order to talk more with the community.

“The difficulty with that is there’s nothing to talk about yet,” Supt. Gregg Haulk said. “We have not yet begun to talk about closing a school.”

Nonetheless, the board voted unanimously to table the item, though there was no discussion about how communication might be improved before a future meeting.

Board President Rosemary Saylor said parents and other community members “have a responsibility to check on the [district] website” for meeting agendas and information.

“We don’t do anything like this behind closed doors. Our study sessions have been publicly noticed,” Saylor said. “We can’t put knowledge out there if it doesn’t exist yet.”

But parents argued that emails could have been sent out or district staff could visit the schools to explain the process.

With less dissent toward the middle school land disposition, the board Tuesday approved entering the next phase of the process, which will add about $231,000 in expenses. The updated agreement with BCA Architects says this phase will provide “a more nuanced, more reliable understanding of dollars and timelines involved in reaching the goal line of entitlements and sale.”

Haulk said the district needs to study the idea of replacing Sowers because it sits in a liquefaction zone, in which saturated soil could lose strength during the shaking of an earthquake. The California Geological Survey defines a liquefaction zone as an area “where the stability of foundation soils must be investigated” related to the risk of earthquakes.

According to Haulk, fixing the soil would require a $20-million drilling project, so the board began discussing other options, including tearing down and rebuilding either the Sowers or Gisler buildings. The former Gisler site is leased to Brethren Christian School, which likely will be moving soon, Haulk said.

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