Measure “I” Pits Balboa Park Advocates Against San Diego High’s Future

by on October 18, 2016 · 1 comment

in Culture, Education, Election, History, Politics, San Diego


San Diego High School used to be called “the old gray castle”

By Doug Porter

Measure “I” started out as a seemingly non-controversial deal to maintain the status quo with two venerable San Diego institutions.

Now it has split the community between those who want to maintain the current location of the City’s oldest high school and those who say it should no longer occupy dedicated parkland.

The City Council placed Measure I on the ballot along with a package of reforms to the charter. It changes the language found in Section 55 of the foundational document governing the City’s use of dedicated parkland to allow a simple majority public vote to allow the existing use of that site to continue.

Currently, the law says the City may use dedicated parkland for another purpose other than not parks or recreation only if that use is approved by a two-thirds majority vote. Rather than try for the super majority, the council opted to change the law, something only requiring a 50%+1 vote.

An additional complication–something that Mayoral candidates for office regularly forget–is that the City and the School District are separate legal entities.

A (Semi) Forgotten Deal

Measure IThe current conflict is the result of more than a century of the kind of “wink,wink” deal-making that’s been part of San Diego’s history.

In 1868, San Diego was the second city in the United States (after NYC’s 1858 establishment of Central Park) dedicate a large park, originally called City Park. What we know today as Balboa Park was included in a 1,400-acre tract of pueblo land set aside by Alta California authorities in 1835 for recreational purposes.

In the 1880s the Russ School, named after lumberman Joseph Russ, was established on the southeast corner of the park. In 1907 the facility became known as San Diego High School.

There was one big problem with a school sitting on city parkland: it wasn’t legal. Eventually, competing claims to the 34 acres occupied by the school ended up in court and were resolved via a 1974 deal allowing the school district to remain for 50 years, paying a $200 annual rent.

The deal included a promise to vacate the land in 2024 and that the property would be restored to park use. The District promised to acquire a non-Park site and build a new campus.

Fast forward 42 years and nothing has happened. There are 8 years left on the lease and San Diego Unified has no plans to relocate the school. $30 million in promised upgrades to its facilities at the site are on hold until the current lease situation is resolved.

Rewarding Bad Behavior?

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Opponents to Measure I, including the Union-Tribune editorial board, point out that passage would be rewarding decades of bad policy and bad faith deals.

Given that the City of San Diego can’t find enough money in its budget to maintain what it already has in Balboa Park, I’m doubtful about the practical aspects of returning the property. (And I’ll tell you about the mayor’s flawed plan to rob Peter to pay Paul for the park tomorrow.)

Various compromises have been suggested, including one by Howard Blackson and Michael Stepner published in the Voice of San Diego.

In order to rethink the role of San Diego High School, one needs to think about the future of the nearby East Village neighborhood. Both the Idea District and Makers Quarter projects are being celebrated nationally for their plan to reimagine East Village as a technology hub.

San Diego High School and City College fit well into the vision for East Village. The city could keep the high school where it is, make some tweaks and create a “school in the park” scenario that aids the neighborhood’s transformation into an innovation hub.

Great idea. Show me the money.

The UT editorial board thinks a land swap might be the ticket for San Diego High’s future:

Whether or not Measure I passes, it’s time for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the City Council, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten and the school board or their designees to cut a deal. Lundin and Valderhaug say the school district could swap land with the city, allowing for San Diego High’s continued operation. If this were done seriously, with negotiations not handled by city officials who tolerate giving away city assets, San Diego could get high-quality land for new or expanded parks.

The acknowledgment of “city officials who tolerate giving away city assets” is yet another sign that the times they are a changin’ at the city’s daily newspaper.

Law and Order

tv-screen-san-diego-highThese alternatives fail to address the underlying legal strategy being cited by opponents David Lundin & Harold Valderhaug in their UT op-ed against Measure I:

The charter and state law both wisely prohibit educational uses of dedicated park lands. Under the charter, two-thirds approval of the electorate is required for any exception. Proponents of this proposal are attempting to “move the goalposts” by seeking a simple majority vote by charter amendment, as they believe two-thirds approval would not be achieved by this scheme.

This ill-considered proposal may also violate California law in two fatal ways. First, California courts have repeatedly held a municipal government may not lawfully sell, lease or give dedicated park lands for non-park uses, such as school buildings. School districts may permit public use of their recreational assets such as pools and playing fields. By contrast, park lands may not be used for a school’s non-park use. Second, California law prohibits any municipality from giving its assets to another public entity to perform a mission outside the scope of the city’s legal obligations. The city is not legally tasked with managing or supporting public education. That is the district’s duty. The city cannot lawfully give the district funds to pay teachers, nor can it can give the district dedicated park lands to relieve the district of its duty to provide schools.

I’d be swayed if I were a judge looking at the bad faith history and legal arguments against keeping San Diego High at its present location. But there are other considerations.

On the other hand, I’m not buying the arguments opponents make about Measure I opening up a “land rush” for property in Balboa Park.

Coming Soon? The Limbaugh Charter School for Arrogant Punks?

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

The measure allows, but does not require, the City Council to approve a new lease with the San Diego Unified School District for a public high school in Balboa Park. I repeat, the property must be used for a public high school.

According to the City Attorney’s analysis of the measure:

If approved, the property that could be leased would be limited to the property where San Diego High School is currently located, as described in the 1974 lease and City Council Ordinance O-20721, adopted August 2, 2016

I read the legalese and (as a layman) I agree. So all the worries about Jack in the Box and the Rush Limbaugh Charter School for Arrogant Punks moving into Balboa Park are fear mongering.

There’s just one little problem: the students.

Where do they go? San Diego High has played and does play a vital role in the lives of thousands of people in some of the city’s most underserved communities.

Here’s a snip from City Councilman David Alvarez’s UT op-ed arguing for passage of Measure I:

When San Diego High opened in 1882, fewer than 3,000 people lived in the city. It is the oldest school in the San Diego Unified School District and one of the oldest public schools in California — in fact, it is the oldest still located at its original site. The campus has served as a public asset for the entire community and is one of the most used school sites for youth/adult sports leagues and community events, such as Stand Down for Homeless Veterans. It is the only public high school that serves the families from Logan Heights, Sherman Heights, Golden Hill, Grant Hill, Downtown, North Park, Normal Heights and others. Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s greatest public spaces, preserving the existing and longtime use of a small section bordering downtown for the public education for our children in the heart of our city makes sense and should not be changed.

The school is in the final years of a 50-year lease, as a result, San Diego High has come under fire from those that want it demolished and severed from Balboa Park. The city is not in a position to take on more liability for buildings at Balboa Park, and it certainly isn’t able to cover the millions of dollars it will cost just to take down the school. Financial impacts coupled with the loss of so much of San Diego’s history is not pragmatic.

Going Forward

AlvarezIf the measure passes, it’s going to be tied up in lawsuits for years to come, according to opponents.

But if it doesn’t pass, the interests of the students won’t have a chance of being considered in any future settlements.

I’m not happy with how we got here. But before any demolition plans get made, I’d like to understand how a couple of thousand lives will be impacted. And pointing a finger at the School Board and saying ‘it’s not my problem’ isn’t a good enough answer.

As Councilman Alvarez told San Diego City Beat:

“Just because nothing was done, doesn’t mean we are going to punish all of these students and families,” Alvarez said. “That’s not their fault. It certainly isn’t the current administration’s fault at the school or at the city. Our responsibility is to respond to the needs as they currently exist, and that’s what this will do. There is a need for this school, and there is a need for it to be done lawfully, and legally, through a charter amendment.”


The editorial board of the San Diego Free Press has endorsed Measure I.

For More Information


Shall City Charter section 55 be amended to authorize the City Council to lease the dedicated park property in Balboa Park currently occupied by San Diego High School, to the San Diego Unified School District for educational, cultural, recreational, and civic programs and activities, provided that the property is used for a public high school?

Ballotpedia Page

All our endorsements are to be found in our General Election Progressive Voter Guide.

Other San Diego Free Press coverage of the 2016 general election.




{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

nostalgic October 20, 2016 at 8:19 am

This change does not prohibit the School District from renting out this property for “educational, cultural, recreational, and civic programs and activities.” There is a lot of leeway here. Educational is only one of the proposed uses. What constitutes a definition of “civic programs and activities”? These are not functions of the School District. It is this phrase that will cause me to vote NO.


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