The San Ysidro School District plans to repurpose bond money budgeted for the reconstruction of Beyer Elementary to settle a $12 million lawsuit against the district – a maneuver that may run afoul of the state constitution.
The $250 million in bond money was approved by voters in 1997 to build new schools and modernize outdated ones.
The San Ysidro School District says bond money budgeted for school construction can be used to settle a lawsuit because it will eventually lead to facility upgrades in the form of new solar panels.
“As long as it’s used for structural material and as long as its purposes are facility purposes, it fits within the bond,” said consultant and former interim Superintendent Ed Velasquez.
Parents and homeowners who live next to the empty lot where Beyer Elementary was slated for reconstruction weren’t sold on the idea.
“That’s just ridiculous,” said Lorena Dambois. “You just can’t use money that’s supposed to be used for the children to pay for a lawsuit. That’s not right.”
In 1997, San Ysidro voters passed Prop C, a $250 million school bond, with what proponents touted as an 86 percent voter-approval rating.
At the time, it was the largest bond measure ever passed in California history. It was approved by less than 900 voters after a low-key campaign to the community’s 7,180 registered voters.
The bond language promised San Ysidro residents the money would be used to upgrade existing schools and build new ones, like the $23.9 million Vista Del Mar School opened in 2012.
Velasquez said he’s not sure the small San Ysidro community needs another elementary school in the area.
“We already have two elementary schools that are just within about a block of each other,” he said Thursday.
The district now wants to use the remaining Prop C funds to re-open a contract with Eco-Business Alliance, a solar energy company that won a $12 million judgment against San Ysidro last year.
A spokeswoman for the district said that settlement agreement includes some direct payment for the cost of the solar panels, but said she did not know the exact amount of that payment.
Beyer Elementary was torn down in the 2012-2013 school year to make way for a new school slated for construction with those bond funds. The site remains an empty lot.
“I’ve been waiting for them to rebuild the school,” said parent Dambois. “It said 'Beyer Elementary' you know, 'Coming Soon.' I saw that that sign isn’t there anymore but I had no idea they weren’t planning on building it anymore.”
Velasquez said the district is still in discussions about what to do with the site, but at the same time admits definitive plans to build it went away with the recent agreement with the solar panel company.
“That’s gone,” he said of the “Coming Soon” sign. “Because of the lawsuit and the judgment and the lien and the contract and that issue, yeah.”
The state says bond monies must be used for the purposes set forth in a ballot measure that granted the sale and “not for any other purpose, including teacher and administrator salaries and other school operating expenses.”
In February, the district approved issuing new Prop C bonds saying it would use the money to pay off some of its outstanding bond debt at a lower interest rate.
Velasquez said settling the lawsuit falls within the parameters of Prop C, and it helped the district get that lower interest rate on the bond loan.
“I think that the school district should form an independent oversight committee with members of their community,” said Theresa Andrews, the interim President and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayer’s Association, an organization that acts as a watchdog on school bond use.
She told NBC 7 she’s not surprised that parents are upset.
“I think because parents are seeing things that are supposed to be done and they’re not being done. So what’s happening with the money?” she said.
The small school district nestled on the U.S. Mexico border has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy since the 2012-2013 school year. Earlier this year, the state lifted the district’s negative financial rating and assigned it a qualified certification.